By DAVID B. CARUSO
Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK- The city has awarded U.S. defense contractor Northrop Grumman a $500 million (euro393 million) contract to build a wireless network that will allow police and firefighters to plug into city computer systems, even when they are rushing to emergencies.
In theory, the system will give police and fire battalion commanders in the field the same easy access to pictures, data and video that people have become accustomed to on their home computers.
Police hunting for a suspect would be able to download a mug shot or view a surveillance video. Fire chiefs might use the system to map the location of each unit or see around a wall of smoke and flames by getting live aerial footage of a burning building, beamed in from a hovering helicopter.
"Imagine what that will do for that staff chief, standing in front of a huge roaring inferno," fire Chief of Department Salvatore Cassano said Tuesday.
Other city officials could even use the system to read water meters or alter traffic light cycles to relieve vehicle congestion.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement announcing the contract that the system would give public safety personnel tools they have needed for some time.
"One of the most important lessons learned from the September 11th attacks was that our emergency responders need better access to information and clearer lines of communication in the field," he said.
Northrop said it will take five years to finish building the small radio antennas that will stretch the system across more than 300 square miles (777 square kilometers), but the network is expected to be operational by spring 2008.
Once complete, the network will work a lot like a giant version of the wireless routers people use for laptop computers in their homes.
The city picked Northrop over the telecommunications company Motorola Inc. after a six-month, $2.7 million (euro2.12 million) test of their competing systems in lower Manhattan. The $500 million (euro393 million) price tag covers the cost of building the network and operating it for five years.
Exactly what the broadband network winds up being used for is up to the city, which could use the bandwidth to do something as simple as transmit e-mail or as complicated as browsing old case files from the front seat of a police cruiser.
"Go as far as you want with an idea. The technology will be there," said Deputy Chief Thomas Gangone, head of the police department's technology division.
Right now the department has computers in about 2,000 cruisers, but wireless data streams in at speeds so slow most officers use them predominantly to check simple text-based criminal history databases.
Similar wireless networks are being built in hundreds of cities and towns around the U.S.
Some cities, including Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco, are developing public networks that will be available to residents for Web browsing and will compete directly with private-sector services run by phone, cable and satellite companies.
Before Hurricane Katrina, police in New Orleans were using a wireless network to monitor street security cameras. Corpus Christi, Texas, has a Wi-Fi network that can read utility meters and give database information to police officers.
New York's system will be for government use only and will come with some of the high-grade security protections that Northrop offers military clients, said Hugh Taylor, the McLean, Virginia-based president of the company's commercial, state and local group.
Taylor said the system would be among the largest and most robust ever built by a city but might not be unusual for long.
"I believe there are a lot of cities watching New York closely," he said.