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January 26, 2006
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Suspects on the screen, on the road Software lets Lowell police check mugshots from the driver's seat

Suspects on the screen, on the road Software lets Lowell police check mugshots from the driver's seat

By LISA REDMOND, Sun Staff

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Lowell Sun

LOWELL, Mass. -- When Lowell police received a 911 call Monday that Ross Elliot was suspected of threatening to kill his girlfriend and then fleeing, they immediately turned to a computer.

Within seconds, the BLAZE alert system was broadcasting Elliot's mugshot across computer screens in cruisers throughout the city.

Using this cutting-edge software developed by Cambridge-based DropFire Inc., patrol officers instantly saw Elliot's mugshot on their cruiser screens. They also received an emergency message about the incident, Elliot's biographical information and his arrest record.

Police are still on the lookout for Elliot, who had a run-in with police in December when he came within a heartbeat of being shot after holding the same girlfriend hostage. Officials say it is only a matter of time before he is caught.

Last February, Jesus Pizarro was caught within 20 minutes of his photo being broadcast through DropFire's software. Lowell police surrounded the Lowell-Dracut-Tyngsboro State Forest and Pizarro, 24, finally surrendered.

DropFire is the latest in wireless communication focusing on public-safety communication. While police radios are verbal, DropFire adds the ability to display the suspect's photo, a critical feature when police are searching for someone, says Scott Cohen, the company's owner and chief executive officer.

"A picture is worth a thousand words,'' he said.

Lowell is one of just four communities in the state that have a version of the DropFire software, according to Cohen. Brookline, Burlington and Plymouth also use it. Lowell police began using it within the past year.

Burlington police Officer Robert Healey said his department is about half-way through a development project in which DropFire's software will allow for the storage of digital and video images, such as mugshots, photos of evidence and suspect interviews. Oracle, the software company, also gave the department a $4,000 grant to provide each patrol officer with a digital camera.

Lowell's initial cost was $12,000 for the software with a yearly fee of up to $700 per year, said Lowell police Capt. William Taylor. The city saved money by recycling each cruiser's old laptop. The laptops are now mounted in the trunk and used to essentially power the system.

"This is cutting-edge stuff,'' Taylor said. "Fifteen years ago, you would get a booking photograph, photocopy it and hand it out to the patrol officers,'' Taylor said.

Now it takes seconds for an officer in a cruiser to have access to that mugshot.

DropFire can access 20,000 digital images from the Police Department's own booking system, as well as those from the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Before DropFire, cruiser laptops could check licenses, registrations and do warrant sweeps, but displaying a mugshot wasn't possible, Cohen said.

"This is the wave of the future,'' he said.

DropFire will also be used to find missing children and Alzheimer's patients who have wandered off, Taylor said.

Using their own digital cameras, family members can send e-mail a digital photo of their missing child or Alzheimer's patient to the police, saving critical time.

Taylor said he hopes that by the fall, the Police Department will provide a database of digital photos of Alzheimer's patients to be used in case of an emergency.

"For an Alzheimer's patient who has wandered off in winter weather, minutes can make all the difference,'' he said.

The DropFire company, which employs a team of seven, was started two years ago by Cohen, an MIT grad and steel sculptor.

The name DropFire has nothing to do with police work or computers, he admits. Cohen, who sculpts steel at his studio in Haverhill, said dropfire is the name for steel that drops when the torch hits it.

"I just liked the name,'' Cohen said.

The key to DropFire's success is cell coverage, said Officer Craig Withycombe, the Lowell Police Department's information-systems manager. The system can't work effectively if there are too many dead zones, he said. The explosion of cellular technology has been a boost for emergency communications.

"The sky is the limit" for this technology, Taylor said.

The next step is to get the officers who work the walking beats and those on bicycles hand-held versions of the equipment in the cruisers, Taylor said.

At some point, officials hope to link the cruisers with the video-surveillance cameras the police have on buildings around the city. Officers could use the cameras for surveillance, while being out of sight in a cruiser blocks away.

For more information on Dropfire, visit www.DropFire.com



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