Shared Connection

The cities of Middleton, Fitchburg and Sun Prairie have similar-sized populations, are almost equidistant and are on the outskirts of Wisconsin's capital city, Madison.

They also share some things that are far less obvious: an encrypted wireless network that links their police departments, a bundle of high-tech software and the joint commission responsible for it all.

The MultiJurisdictional Public Safety Information System (MPSIS) task force formed four years ago to fix the police departments' ailing records management systems, and since then it has procured high-tech tools and provided cost savings.

"We consolidated a lot of what police departments need to do their job," said Matthew Prough, the system administrator and sole MPSIS employee.

Prough, whose background includes law enforcement and technology, steered the cities' latest collaborative project: upgrading slow T1 links (in place since 2004) to high-speed wireless and encrypting part of the network's traffic. The improvement initially presented a challenge for the MPSIS.

Going the Wireless Way

When the cities looked to upgrade their network, a speedier connection wasn't on top of the must-have list. Officials wanted the ability to extend a flat Layer 2 network out to the network's physical locations to prevent disruptions, while also preserving the existing IP network addressing scheme.

As a result, if the main Fitchburg server failed, a backup server at a different location would assume operations without the need to reconfigure. "This gives us an easy ability to establish redundancy and business continuity for our systems," he said.

Redundancy is especially important for public safety entities because a several-minute glitch endanger people.

Prough said the decision to extend the Layer 2 network out to the sites - instead of routing between them - to provide a backup network backbone often comes as a surprise to others. "My experience is that there's a basic assumption made by people that since we have three separate sites, we route between them," he said.

Some consultants discarded the idea of a Layer 2 network, Prough said, especially when it came to encryption and backup links. Prough suspected that familiarity with routed networks was partly to blame. "But we knew what we wanted to achieve, and simple persistence and patience ultimately allowed us to achieve the results we were looking for," he said.

Segment Solution

Because of the wireless upgrade, the MPSIS had to comply with Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) security requirements - federal mandates for sensitive information.

The requirements are compulsory for police departments, which access state and federal databases (e.g., when pulling license plate data) and information from local police departments connected by a Web-based tool called the Wisconsin Justice Information Sharing (WIJIS) Justice Gateway.

Although CJIS compliance under WIJIS is not mandatory until 2010, any upgrade or new connection must comply immediately, Prough said.

To secure the wireless network, the MPSIS turned to encryption. Of the five responses to the organization's RFP, three offered wireless radios with built-in encryption and two offered wireless-only solutions with the option to encrypt via a third-party vendor.

For the MPSIS, the choice hinged on price.

"The two that included encryption options external to the wireless radios were significantly less expensive," Prough said. The cities tapped CommConnect for the wireless connection and took CommConnect's advice to enlist third-party vendor CipherOptics for the encryption.

CipherOptics proposed its CipherEngine to meet MPSIS's cost and performance requirements. In addition to encrypting traffic on the Layer 2 switched network, the MPSIS called on CipherOptics to segment the nonencrypted traffic from the Fitchburg Fire Department, so the fire department would connect via half of the Fitchburg Police Department link, thereby consolidating the two existing links that used the same water tower.

Jessica Hughes  |  Contributing Writer

Jessica Hughes is a regular contributor to Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.