Goin' Mobile

A new generation of mobile data systems-cuts access time to national law enforcement databases.

by / July 31, 1997
When Patrolman Charles Mouris of Dedham, Mass., pulled over an unregistered Dodge Colt on the highway, his new laptop computer rapidly told him that this was more than a routine traffic stop. The driver of the car, Moses Thompson, was wanted for murder in North Carolina. Thompson's subsequent arrest as a fugitive from justice was the direct result of a new generation of smart mobile wireless computing tools that are making law enforcement and emergency services far safer and much more efficient.

Mobile data systems have been available since the 1970s. But the first-generation systems were based on large, proprietary computers controlling networks of non-intelligent data terminals. These systems were costly -- often beyond the reach of many small and medium-sized agencies. And their information-handling capabilities were relatively limited.

Today, armed with a notebook computer and a radio modem, emergency personnel in the field and officers on the street can have almost instant access to information in numerous local, state and federal databases. Inexpensive turnkey or off-the-shelf client/server packages mean that even small agencies can now afford a network. In the case of law enforcement, access to information is only one aspect of these new systems, described by one Massachusetts police officer as having as much impact on policing as the introduction of portable radios.

The change was dramatic for the 210 officers of the Lakewood, Colo., Police Department, where computerization had previously been limited to select office personnel. "We had been purchasing computers piecemeal for different people where the department had identified the need -- word processing, spreadsheets and so forth. But we didn't know enough to put together a whole package," explained Lt. James Kiekhaefar, communication center manager for the department.

"Half of a policeman's time is spent writing reports, and we were still block printing all our reports by hand," Kiekhaefar said. "I could put 10 reports down in front of you by 10 different agents and none would look the same. Some would be very difficult to read. Some people's printing looks like Phoenician hieroglyphics, and you would have to work with these people for six months to start deciphering their writing."

To be fair, Lakewood police have been acclaimed in the media as one of the best urban police forces in the country. Nevertheless, Kiekhaefar said that while the latest computing tools wouldn't make a bad police department good, a first-rate information handling system, including reports and records management access, can make a good department better. In a drive to "put computers into the hands of the worker bees," the agency set out to find a system that would allow them to comply with the FBI's new National Incident Base Reporting System (NIBRS).

"The new NIBRS system requires an awful lot of data elements [be] captured at the time the initial police report is taken," said Kiekhaefar. "To do that on paper was going to require an awful lot of paperwork and a lot of time. So one of the things that we were trying to move toward was handling that kind of data once by creating electronic records in the field on laptop computers. Adjunct to that, we thought, why not give officers some communications capability? Let's give the agents their own capability of doing their warrants and status checks."

The data processing department in Lakewood created a very good report-writing program. PacketCluster Patrol from Cerulean Technology Inc., an off-the-shelf package with open architecture, allowed them to put the program on a wireless data radio network so reports could be written and filed from the field. And the capability to do intelligent vehicle and warrant checks was added.

"The interesting thing was that -- based on an unofficial survey we did -- within a couple of months, our queries to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation were up about 100 times," said Kiekhaefar. "And it wasn't just ease of use. Especially for people on the midnight shift, there had been peer pressure to not drive through some of our less-than-glamorous motels. Before we put this system in, officers would have to call it out on channel, and if they ran 15 license plates, went to another motel and ran another 15 or 20 license plates, all the other officers on duty would be listening and would wonder what the hell the officer was doing.

"Now, the agent can drive through the parking lot, quickly note down the license plates, go get a cup of coffee and run these licenses. With the networks, we are getting response times on those queries from the field in anywhere from 18 to 13 seconds. In contrast, when we first put our system in, a similar check by the Denver police -- with whom we share a border -- was taking 10 to 14 minutes over a busy voice channel."

The new system proved so efficient in the field that officers decided to install the same system on a desktop computer in the station. This allowed desk sergeants to unobtrusively run checks on people coming into the station to make reports. In the first week, Kiekhaefar said they made five warrant arrests they never would have made otherwise.

Because the system they picked has the ability to interface with almost anything, one of the slicker things Lakewood officials then did was give supervisors in the field the ability to pull up on their laptops the same computer-aided dispatch display screens the dispatchers were looking at in the station. Supervisors on the street can now immediately see what is happening where, and what calls are holding.

Integrated Agency Solutions
PacketCluster Patrol won an award at the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association's Wireless Apps show in 1996 as the most innovative wireless end-user application. It is an example of what a relatively inexpensive mobile wireless network can now provide agencies.

The open architecture software will run on a standard Pentium-based personal computer with a special modem and radio transceiver: low-band, VHF, UHF, or 800MHz radio systems (conventional or trunked) or public packet networks (e.g., CDPD), depending on local frequency availability. This connects to laptops in the field running Windows 95. Along with car-based units, the company even provides a briefcase model that has been successfully used for undercover drug enforcement operations.

The package provides realtime messaging, where a one-line message to another user instantly appears on the display in the other vehicle with an audible tone signaling its arrival. If a user is out of range for a short time, the messages are held in a queue and promptly delivered upon their return. Announcements of general interest to all other users or to a predefined group of users -- all detectives, for example -- can be broadcast.

The system allows agents to prepare field reports on mobile computers and send the report to headquarters electronically. It has full e-mail capability and an electronic conferencing capacity allowing up to 16 separate, simultaneous electronic conferences with participants from the same system or from neighboring systems linked into a cluster.

Authorized users may access and/or update any database which resides on the system's message switch computer, and it can be configured to exchange information with 911 and computer-aided dispatch software, allowing "voiceless" dispatch. In some cases, it even allows agents in the field to run programs which reside on computers in the station. All messages, mail and data sent are encrypted to prevent unauthorized reception.

The software also supports transmission of images to and from the base station to assist in positive identification of suspects in the field. An optional automatic vehicle location (AVL) module sends each user's geographic position with every transmission when polled by headquarters or based on any other pre-defined event. Vehicles are then equipped with a GPS satellite receiver, which calculates vehicle position within approximately 100 to 300 feet. The precision of the GPS system would be five to 10 times greater, but the U.S. Department of Defense introduces a deliberate error to prohibit hostile nations from using the system for military purposes.

The "Smart Roam" capability allows two or more conventional repeaters to be deployed where a single radio site does not provide adequate coverage. The feature which police officers in the field seem to take to immediately -- no matter what their previous computer experience has been -- provides voiceless interface to local, state and national crime databases in seconds, and uses "intelligent information retrieval" to provide information officers might not otherwise obtain in a field situation.

"The officer on the street can enter just one piece of information in the car and the server then collects a lot of information from many different databases, plucks out the information which is important, packages it up nicely and delivers it back to the vehicle, where it is displayed in summary form," explained William C. Poellmitz, vice president of marketing and co-founder of Cerulean Technology Inc. "This is opposed to just taking all the information from an inquiry and delivering just what had been sent back from different databases.

"Mobile data in the traditional sense refers to taking up a block of information as it exists and transporting it to some other location. Mobile information is a more interactive, intelligent approach, where you generate an inquiry and the computer that is expected to execute on the inquiry says, 'OK, this is the piece of data that I have to work with. What else can I get?' And when it gets more information, it says, 'OK, I've got something new. Can I use this as a new basis of additional inquiries?'"

As a result, simply entering in a single piece of information, such as a license number, might return information that there is an arrest warrant out on the registered owner in another state, or any other pertinent information which is obtained based on automatically generated further inquiries to numerous criminal and other databases.

Choosing A Network
Pulling from the experience gained from over 200 police forces and other emergency agencies using their software package, Poellmitz named three major factors to consider in choosing a mobile data network system. First, an agency needs to determine its optimum wireless infrastructure. Should it consider using a private radio system that it owns and operates, or should it consider using a public wireless network?

Second, some information is required in realtime and some information does not change often enough to require realtime relay. Hazardous materials data, for instance, does not change often enough to necessitate transmission over the wireless network, consuming bandwidth and using up airtime delivering information which can be stored and retrieved locally on each computer. Criminal warrant information and stolen vehicle information, on the other hand, needs to be realtime, as it changes constantly.

The third consideration relates to hardware. "One of the things we've found is that sometimes people have their hearts set on buying a highly ruggedized mobile computing device for the vehicle," said Poellmitz. "They will consider spending $8,000 or even $12,000 for a ruggedized computer that you can throw off the top of a building. The problem is that it will last a long time, but its technology life is a whole lot shorter -- not just in terms of processors and onboard RAM, but also its ability to interface with other things.

"We have thousands of mobile computing customers in the field, and the overwhelming majority of them are using standard consumer laptops which have no problems in cold weather. They are a little sluggish until the cabin gets to the temperature where the officer is happy. But then the computer is also happy. The problems that people have with these are where there are very high temperatures and they do silly things like leave a computer in the car in the hot sun with the windows rolled up. The inside cabin temperature can reach 180 or 190 degrees, and that is not healthy for any piece of electronic equipment."

Poellmitz also suggests that any company an agency does business with should be committed to upgrading the agency as technology improves. "This is important to most of our customers. Whatever their needs today, their needs tomorrow are absolutely, predictably going to be different."

John Geiger, principal for public safety information systems at Unisys, said that the first decision -- the type of radio network to use -- must balance between cost factors and what is available in any area that provides assured coverage. And in this regard, public data network coverage is increasing constantly in many areas.

Unisys has been supporting public safety and law enforcement for 20 years, beginning by connecting states with the National Crime Information Center. It has done it with mainframe-based applications and now, with the tremendous increase in mobile data computers (MDC), they offer turnkey, open architecture solutions, both in UNIX at the state level and Windows NT for the local users.

"We've been asked many times by clients what are the best MDCs for a particular application," said Geiger. "And in truth, that is like asking what the best stereo is or what the best car is. There are a multitude of requirements that go into making that decision.

"The other thing is that the MDC all by itself isn't going to gain you very much. The object of the exercise is to get information into the hands of the officer on the street," he said. "And you also want to be able to share accurate information throughout the public safety enterprise. So if you don't have good connectivity into a record system, if you don't have a database record system -- and much of this is now being mandated by law, such as the National Incident Base Reporting System -- you might be shortsighted in making an investment which looks whiz-bang right now, but that really doesn't effectively tie into your records system and provide access to information that is critical to improving public safety."

Geiger suggested an agency can best make decisions by hiring someone knowledgeable in the industry but not tied to any particular solution -- someone who can come in and analyze their situation, because there can be a variety of solutions. And the emphasis should be on enterprise-wide connectivity. "Putting computers in the car is not the end of the story," he said. "What is important is making all the information available to all the people in the enterprise that need it when they need it.

"We've done studies -- one in the state of Massachusetts, for instance -- where we found that the same information might be entered over 20 times," said Geiger. "This is a tremendous amount of redundancy and it is error-prone. So if you can enter the data electronically and pass it along electronically from source to disposition, there is obviously economies of scale and there is a tremendous amount of accuracy improvement as well."

The economizing factor of modern mobile computing networks should also be entered into the equation. Poellmitz said with a good system, officer productivity increases 15 percent to 20 percent. "That's like saying six officers can do the work that seven officers were doing before. And we've had departments that didn't need to hire additional voice dispatchers because of mobile data networks. Voice dispatchers are freed up from what can now be automated to do what they do best -- handle human crisis situations.

"Moreover, with electronic report writing and filing, not only is redundancy eliminated and information made more accurate, but officers can stay deployed in the field, where they are needed most, and this also increases public visibility."

In agencies using new MDC systems, the change has often been immediate and dramatic. As Sergeant Dale T. Provins of the Jefferson Borough, Pa., Police Department said of their new network, "The system has brought a new dimension to law enforcement. We have streamlined the flow of critical information and eliminated redundant tasks. The dramatic improvement in efficiency translates into improved law enforcement and service to the community. During the first two weeks of operation, the system helped us identify and capture several wanted persons and recover a number of stolen vehicles."

For more information, call Lt. James Kiekhaefar at 303/987-7142.

The original deployment of mobile computing was essentially limited to a private radio system. Public data networks became a viable option in the late 1980s with the introduction of the first public data network -- Motorola's Data Radio Network. Then Motorola expanded that concept in a joint venture with IBM and created ARDIS, a much more expansive, nationwide public data network. RAM Mobile Data followed ARDIS, because they both believed there was a market for packet data and they thought the very successful business model for cellular phones could be emulated with packet data.

There was, however, initial reluctance on the part of government agencies to accept public data transport, because they had perceptions of low security and comparatively poor quality of service. It didn't take long, however, for the public data networks to improve markedly, although there were still some lingering concerns about security. Today, however, these networks have large, established customer bases, a history of service to government agencies of all descriptions and they continue to be a viable option to the public sector.

After the cellular industry finally saw an opportunity for incremental revenue on their backbone through data services, they formed a coalition which adopted a protocol for industrywide packet data transport that would allow carrier-to-carrier transport of data. This led to CDPD, the cellular industry's packet data transport. In adopting this protocol, they did one thing very different from the earlier networks which were built on propriety over-the-air protocols. The cellular industry decided there should be a seamless, plug-and-play extension of the Internet in the wireless world. So one of the criteria of the CDPD protocol was to be IP- or Internet-compatible. The result is that with cellular solutions, you can literally move around from a wire-line environment to a wireless environment without needing translation software. And the other thing that CDPD did was provide encryption as a standard feature, allowing a high level of security across the board.

Last year, Microsoft introduced the CE operating system designed to maximize the efficiency of the portable environment. This now allows a hand-held computer to operate as a computer, as an Internet Web browser or, with the push of a function key, as a telephone.

"IP-based wireless solutions are bringing not only lower cost solutions to wireless computing, but also multi-functionality," explained Rich Bohmer of Paradigm4, a company which provides outsourced wireless network solutions. "That is the future -- not just multimedia but multi-functionality."

"The concept of public data networks is no longer a mystery, and when faced with a decision of whether to build your own system or use a public carrier, each is starting to get equal footing from the customer's perspective. One thing Paradigm4 is doing as a company -- and this is unique to us -- is that we've introduced the concept of an outsourced virtual private network. We are trying to make wireless mobile computing as simple to the client as buying a cellular phone. We are going to have available this year a subscriber agreement, just like the one you see when you subscribe to a cellular phone. The agency signs up for a three-year term and we provide everything -- the laptops installed in cars, the network, complete security through encryption, the server that would connect up to, say, the criminal justice system, help lines -- the whole set-up for a monthly fee per unit of approximately $375. We believe that this will be the new trend because it takes the complexity out of mobile data computing."

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