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TriTech Poised For Security Role; S.D. Emergency Vehicles To Get New Display Terminals

As the communications manager for San Diego Fire-Rescue, Susan Infantino says she''s been trying for years to replace the mobile display terminals in city firetrucks, ambulances and other vehicles.

The equipment firefighters and paramedics now use is based on MS-DOS, the Microsoft Disk Operating System dating to 1981, and Infantino refers to them as "dumb terminals."

By next month, though, the city is expected to begin installing up to 200 new mobile communications display terminals under a contract awarded three months ago to San Diego-based TriTech Software Systems. The privately held company, which has about 90 employees, specializes in 911 dispatch systems for public safety agencies.

TriTech''s wireless mobile system is intended to let firefighters in the field access the same sort of information from a laptop computer that dispatchers see on their monitors in the Kearny Mesa communication center. Among other things, the system can display a map that tracks the position of every fire truck responding to an emergency, improving the situational awareness for firefighters on the scene.

The $700,000 project was financed in part by a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The grant may have been accelerated by last year''s Cedar Fire, which underscored the city''s need for a better mobile communications system, Infantino said.

She conceded the new technology probably wouldn''t have made much difference in a fire of that magnitude, but "the fires of last year sort of gave us some attention in terms of unmet needs."

To Chris Maloney, TriTech''s president and chief executive, the San Diego project offers an example of a potential wave of new business if a couple of promising trends materialize. Usually, selling dispatch software to public safety agencies is what Maloney calls a very steady-state market.

One trend, Maloney said, lies in improved mobile data technology and the ability to share information with police and firefighters in the field so better decisions can be made at the scene.

Another trend is a surge in financing through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"The No. 1 industry concern right now is homeland security," Maloney says. "Not only with funding, but how is it going to drive the technology?"

Despite industry expectations, funding for homeland security is clouded by uncertainty.

Although the Department of Homeland Security was created almost two years ago, the government has used most of the funding since then to build the agency''s own infrastructure. Meanwhile, public safety agencies throughout the country were contending with new security requirements that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The result was a paradoxical downturn for companies like TriTech. With billions of dollars going into the homeland security department, spending by local public safety agencies actually tightened as police and fire departments stretched to do more.

"There was some money coming down, mostly in the form of block grants," Maloney said. "But we weren''t seeing the kind of spending...the industry had expected."

TriTech generated about $16 million in revenue last year, he said.

Focus shifting

Now, however, it appears the Department of Homeland Security has begun to shift its focus externally by directing more funding to specific projects and tasks. It also has been issuing new requests for proposals, which invite companies to bid for specific programs.

On Monday, President Bush signed the Homeland Security Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2005, which provides $28.9 billion in discretionary spending. The appropriation provides $3 billion for state and local programs, including roughly $885 million in grants for "high-threat" urban areas and $715 million in firefighter assistance grants.

The amount is huge, but there is still too much uncertainty to tell how such federal funds will filter through state and local governments, said Yucel Ors, legislative affairs director for APCO International, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.

Nevertheless, many companies have been maneuvering to take advantage of any new business.

"We''re getting a lot of vendors and businesses that are sensing some opportunities in funding that is coming down the pipeline," said Augie Ghio, Homeland Security Director for the City of San Diego.

TriTech''s competitors include Intergraph Public Safety, InterAct Public Safety Systems, Motorola, Tuburon, New World Systems, Open Software Solutions, Positron Public Safety Systems and VisionAIR. Information technology giants, such as EDS, also are promoting their expertise in emergency center systems. None has more than a 5 percent share of the market, Maloney said.

To San Diego''s Ghio, however, the flood of vendors promoting new homeland security technologies is less important than fulfilling basic needs.

"Our high priority right now is equipping and training the first responders," Ghio said, while noting that many officials voiced similar sentiments at a recent conference he attended on urban area security initiatives.

"You''ve got to cover the basics first before you go into some of the new homeland security technologies," Ghio said.

When Maloney founded TriTech in 1989 with partners Sean McEwen and John Eckert, they were doing productivity software for ambulance services. They expanded by developing dispatch center software for law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services.

"In 2001, we were basically a dispatch center software company," Maloney said. "Today we sell the entire suite of software products that a public safety agency would want to purchase, including records management and mobile data systems."

The company financed its growth internally, and has installed its systems at about 150 agencies around the world, including those in Seattle; Denver; Las Vegas; Honolulu; Austin, Texas; Sydney, Australia; and Mexico City.

But acquiring new customers is usually expensive, and dealing with city bureaucracies can be wearing, Maloney said. He estimates it costs the company $20,000 to $30,000 to respond to an agency''s request for proposals.

"Once you get a customer, you can typically retain that customer on a support and maintenance contract," Maloney said, "and those tend to be more lucrative than the installations."

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