with the Office of Justice Programs' National Institute of Justice (NIJ)
First step to interoperability: Cooperation
The police department in a neighboring jurisdiction uses a different type of radio. Uneven terrain can cause gaps in coverage. Public safety agencies are being asked to hammer out plans for handling critical incidents in addition to managing their routine responsibilities. These and other related factors have combined to create an interoperability crisis that impacts every public safety agency in the country. Although technology contributes to the problem, technology can also contribute to potential solutions.
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), the digital routing of voice conversations over the Internet or through any other Internet protocol-based network, is one of the fastest growing telecom technologies. A pilot project based in Danville, Virginia, capitalized on a public-private partnership to explore the possibilities of using VoIP to enhance communications interoperability.
In rural Newberry County, South Carolina, local law enforcement used a congressional grant to develop a multipronged approach that includes laptops and driver’s license readers in patrol cars, WiFi “hot spots” in the county’s schools, and development of a shared records management system that allows for real-time sharing of information.
Both projects have one important aspect in common: cooperation between multiple agencies and communication about needs and how to develop solutions.
The Need To Set the Pace
In Newberry County, South Carolina, the sheriff’s department and other public safety agencies found that a cooperative approach was the way to resolve a number of interoperability issues.
“We found the key to success was to start by getting the right people together,” says Maj. Todd Johnson. “Then, if a vendor says what you need can’t be done, keep looking until you find a vendor that will work with you. Instead of the market setting pace for us, we need to set pace for the market.”
By taking this approach, Newberry County found solutions to a number of interoperability issues, to the extent that the Office of Justice Programs’ National Institute of Justice (NIJ) termed the project a “Best Practice for Wireless Networks for Rural Law Enforcement” and featured it at the agency’s annual Law Enforcement Technology Institute in August 2007.
The rural South Carolina county capitalized on a congressional grant received in early 2006 and followed a step-by-step approach to improving communications in the area. The county started by placing laptops in all of its patrol cars. In the beginning, data had to be downloaded and uploaded into computers at the beginning and end of each shift, so the project next began moving toward real-time transfer and exchange of data.
“We looked at a lot of different wireless options and found many of them to be cost prohibitive,” Johnson says. “We came to realize that in a rural county, total wireless coverage was not possible. At the time, I was supervising our school resource officers, and at a meeting, there was discussion about the T1 lines in use in the schools. It dawned on me that would be a good asset to leverage.”
The schools, the sheriff’s department, and the city of Newberry Police Department set up a user’s group that has encrypted access to “WiFi hot spots” located at the schools. This allows officers to pull onto school property and make secure data transmissions during their shifts.
Rural Newberry County encompasses 620 square miles in the western part of the State, with the majority of its population concentrated around the city of Newberry and several other small towns, and lots of farmland in between, according to Johnson. In some areas, neither cell phones nor law enforcement radios work, but the fiber-optic WiFi network (developed for less than $100,000) connects even the most remote of the county’s schools.
From improving connections for the officers in the field, the cooperating agencies then turned to creating a countywide records management system accessible to the sheriff’s department, the police, the courts, victim advocates, and other agencies. After interviewing 15 different vendors, the project came up with a provider that was willing to work with Newberry County to develop something specific to the project’s needs. The vendor gave the county a discounted price in return for feedback and evaluation help to develop a product now sold commercially.
“Everything is real time, we have one central server,” Johnson says. “Instead of one arrest warrant needing to be entered multiple times into multiple systems, as soon as we serve it, it’s available to everybody.”
Newberry County then moved on to developing a paperless connection with various State agencies such as the South Carolina Department of Corrections and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), when it added magnetic card readers to patrol cars and became the first county in the State to issue electronic traffic citations. The system allows officers to scan a license and automatically create a traffic ticket, then print it from their laptops and hand it to a driver. Also, the addition of Live Scan in county facilities allows the automatic electronic submission of fingerprints and palmprints to SLED.
“What used to take 6 months (to ID) now takes a matter of minutes,” says Johnson, adding that the system has already led to the arrest of two suspects who lied about their identities, and the linking of a suspect arrested in Newberry County on a marijuana charge to a burglary elsewhere in South Carolina. Newberry County has also expanded the system to help with sex offender registration and child identification programs.
For more information on how Newberry County, South Carolina, approached its interoperability challenges, contact Maj. Todd Johnson, 803–321–2211 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Modify Instead of Replace
Possibly serving as a national model, the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) Pilot Project in Danville, Virginia, demonstrates how public-private partnerships can benefit both sides. By partnering with a technology provider eager to develop a commercial product, the Danville project obtained cutting-edge technology at a low cost and the vendor received valuable evaluation and feedback.
“The participants got not only direct benefits from the equipment itself, but also the indirect benefit of creating long-lasting partnerships that will continue to help resolve interoperability issues in the future. Everybody thinks interoperability is purely a technical problem, but that’s not necessarily so,” says Pete Small of the Communications Technologies Center of Excellence, part of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC) System and an initiative of the Office of Justice Programs’ National Institute of Justice (NIJ).
VoIP refers to various technologies used to allow making telephone calls over IP networks such as the Internet. The voice data flows over a general-purpose, packet-switched network instead of traditional dedicated, circuit-switched voice transmission lines.
According to Small, NIJ assisted with the pilot project by providing evaluation and documentation for the overall scope of the project, formulating regional government partnerships, and offering “honest broker” assistance with the project equipment. This assistance was carried out by NIJ’s Communications Technology (CommTech) Program, Communications Technologies Center of Excellence, NLECTC-Northeast, NLECTC-Southeast, and the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas. NIJ did not, however, provide funding. Instead, participating public safety agencies (the city of Danville; Pittsylvania County, Virginia; the Virginia State Police; Caswell County, North Carolina; and the North Carolina State Highway Patrol) worked directly with a technology provider to obtain equipment. These neighboring jurisdictions had been drawn together by a lack of a common radio frequency and inadequate infrastructure, which had led to the cumbersome solution of dispatchers relaying information back and forth over land lines.
“We focused on observing and evaluating technology deployment, providing operational evaluation, and documenting the project through a series of white papers and NIJ In Shorts [publications] available through NIJ’s CommTech program,” Small says, adding that every participant contributed significantly to the effort. “We made sure the practitioners asked the right questions of the technology provider,” he says. “If something wasn’t right or might cause a problem, it was our job to point that out to local agencies and make sure it was thoroughly
discussed and thoroughly designed until the right pieces were put together.”
The project had goals of improving officer safety through direct communication and coordination, and improving interoperability through system modification rather than system replacement. In the first of several phases, the pilot focused on establishing overall project governance and establishing interoperability in the city of Danville. The interoperability phase connected VHF radio systems for police, fire, electric, emergency management, water and gas, and public works using existing land mobile systems and creating emergency operations center dispatch console connections. Phase I also included design and deployment of the vendor’s Internet Protocol Interoperability Collaboration System product.
In Phase II, governance and the network expanded to take in the two surrounding counties, including both county sheriff’s departments. In Phase III, the Virginia State Police and the North Carolina Highway Patrol came on board. A period of testing, evaluation, and tweaking followed the three phases of implementation, with final deployment in the first quarter of 2008.
“The majority of the valuable lessons learned came in Phase III, through working with the North Carolina State Highway Patrol,” Small says. “They had very old landmobile radio base station equipment, and it was very difficult for the technology provider to integrate the network with that equipment.” The problem was resolved when another technology provider donated ACU-2000 equipment to the patrol, which allowed the creation of a working interface and helped alleviate longstanding communication problems among the neighboring jurisdictions.
The city of Danville lies on the North Carolina border, with Yancyville and Caswell County in North Carolina its nearest neighbors. Before the VoIP project, there were no common frequencies between the jurisdictions, which often had to work together as suspects fled across State lines. A cumbersome landline relay between dispatch centers was their only method of communication. Now, Small says, as an indirect result of this project, the agencies have agreed to share frequencies among their radio systems, and a VoIP intercom system connects the five
dispatch centers. Instead of using the telephone, dispatchers now can key a button on their consoles and immediately talk to their counterparts. This provides instant communication and avoids tying up the limited shared frequency space until dispatchers determine that the space is necessary.
“Before, there had not been an opportunity to sit down and work out the logistics of cross-jurisdiction communications. This project led to very significant discussions and the creation of new ways to communicate with each other and share with each other,” he says.
For more information on the Danville VoIP Pilot Project, the National Institute of Justice’s CommTech Program, or the Communications Technologies Center of Excellence, contact Pete Small, 267–415–4770 or e-mail email@example.com.
This article was reprinted from the Spring 2008 edition of TechBeat, the award-winning quarterly newsmagazine of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center System, a program of the National Institute of Justice under Cooperative Agreement #2005–MU–CX–K077, awarded by the U.S. Department of Justice.