While patrolling the streets, police officers get accustomed to having to juggle all sorts of tasks -- operating two-way radios, scanners, radar and video equipment, sirens and lights -- not to mention having to peer into alleys and check mirrors for possible wrongdoing, all while maneuvering in traffic.

That's just business as usual for the majority of police officers -- but not those officers whose vehicles are equipped with Project 54, a voice-activated system that allows officers to operate most equipment -- radios, scanners, siren, lights, etc. -- with voice commands, instead of taking their hands off the wheel and eyes off the road.

The New Hampshire State Police and the Carlsbad, Calif., Police Department, which implemented the system in May 2005, are among the growing number of police forces nationwide providing their officers with the ability to speak commands to run various pieces of equipment in their police cruisers.

The system, named after the 1960s television show, Car 54, Where Are You? was developed by the University of New Hampshire (UNH) and tested by the New Hampshire State Police in early 2002. The testing went well and in August 2003, most squad cars, save the older vehicles near the end of their life span, were outfitted with the technology.

The New Hampshire State Police, one of more than 60 police agencies using Project 54, had deployed it in about 700 cars as of February 2006, according to University of New Hampshire Research Computing Center Director William Lenharth, lead engineer on the project.

"When we started, our functionality was limited," said New Hampshire State Police Lt. Mark Liebl, who first tested the system for the state police. "At first, it was limited to the emergency lighting equipment and siren. Then we expanded to radar equipment, video equipment -- essentially anything and everything that you would normally have to push a button on the controls."

By spring 2006, the system's capabilities expanded, allowing officers to switch between 256 radio system channels by voicing a command.

"Our radio has 256 channels, and we can talk to everyone in the state," Liebl said, adding that trying to locate a specific frequency on a radio control screen can be a problem at any speed, but is particularly dangerous when driving at high speeds. "You're trying to find one frequency out of 256 when you really need to be concentrating on the road and traffic."

Instead of pushing buttons to find the right frequency, the officer depresses what was once the cruise control button on the steering wheel (converted to the "talk button") and gives the command for the proper frequency. The system repeats the request in an audible tone then finds the correct frequency.

"Every time a command is given, the system gives you a confirmation," Liebl said. "So if I say Concord Police Department, the PC will say 'Concord Police Department,' then I will hear the radio clicking through the stations as it's looking for Concord. When it gets to Concord Police Department, the beeping will start. I'll know that I'm there, and I can start talking to Concord PD direct."

The Carlsbad Police Department belongs to a regional radio system called the Regional Communication System (RCS) on which there are more than 100 frequencies. It was a challenge for officers to find each frequency before the city deployed Project 54 last year.

"You've got to remember how to get to those frequencies," said Carlsbad Police Department Administrator Maria Callander. "They're controlled by zones, and you've got to move over three zones or five rows to get to the correct channel. You have to remember where it is on the matrix."

Using Project 54, Callander said, officers only need to say the name of the channel, and the radio knows how many buttons to push.

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor