March 23, 2006
 

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Posted: 10.01.05

Safety in Numbers

Greater focus on security and an increase in funding are sparking new, and higher-tech, public safety initiatives.
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By Michelle Maisto




In the last few years, public safety and “homeland security” have become deeply intertwined. As our national consciousness has steeped in the vernacular of this latest neologism, many of the civic priorities covered under the umbrella of public safety have gone from cautionary, preventative measures to on-the-defensive initiatives. In a good number of cases this has been made financially possible through federal dollars and realistically feasible through the mobile technology those dollars have purchased.

Below is a small sampling of the many ways public safety is being addressed across the country today—and incidentally, each of them, to varying fiscal amounts and degrees of directness, were helped along through Homeland Security funds—and the various technologies that are making them possible.

Schools at a Glance

“When you get involved in public safety, you get involved in a lot of different areas,” says Jeff Goldstein, a systems engineer with CDW Government, an Illinois-based provider of technology for government and educational sectors. “Part of my role is basically to travel throughout the country visiting schools and state and local municipalities, and through these travels IT surveillance has become an increasing topic of conversation.” Goldstein discusses potential surveillance projects with schools—assessing their needs, their resources, how sophisticated a solution they would like—and then works with a technology team, engineers and field account executives to design and implement the project.

“The schools are looking out for the overall safety of the students,” says Goldstein. Additionally, camera-based solutions can help prevent problems such as fights and theft. “Basic areas that we tend to address are hallways, stairwells, parts of the campus where students tend to congregate and also transportation areas. There’s become a large concern that, for kids who get picked up by parents, there’s a record of who picked them up. That way if there’s any discrepancy, the school has video documentation. Also, drugs are always an issue. Columbine always seems to come up. And after-hours is always a concern. A lot of these buildings have very high-tech technology centers. These cameras can monitor the building when most of the faculty is gone and there are after-school programs going on. So, there are various types of cameras that can be used in various locations to address various needs,” he explains.

The mobile aspect is that the cameras are all IP based and so can be viewed from any Web browser. “It doesn’t have to be just the police in their police car. The principal or superintendent can be sitting at home and put in the IP address of the camera and actually view that camera,” he says. Motion-sensitive cameras can also trigger software to send an alert (whether by phone or e-mail) when the camera turns on; plus, everything is time-stamped, so there’s no rewinding hours of footage to find an incident. “An alert can go out and say, ‘Camera 7, north stairwell, activity.’ And if they have it set up wirelessly, they can just radio a police car and say, ‘Go over to the elementary school and check camera 7.’ And they can just pull up to the street and check, without ever going into the building.”

As for ROI, Goldstein says it’s multi-layered, and it isn’t just about numbers. “Obviously, it would reduce vandalism, because the kids know they’re being watched; so you have that as number one. Number two, which I think is very big, is peace of mind to the parents. … Now when the kids go in for the day the front door is locked, and there’s a camera out there, [and visitors have to] hit a buzzer that goes to the main office, and the camera sees who’s there. Parents are a lot more comfortable knowing people can’t just come and go into the school. And number three is liability for the school. If a kid says he tripped on a crack and [hurt himself], but the video shows he was horsing around, that’s very important to have for insurance purposes.”
The most important thing for CDW-G says Goldstein, “is for us to go in being agnostic, and make the solution fit the need, not the need fit the solution.”

Serve and Protect

“From a police standpoint, there’s a lot of things happening right now in public safety,” says Todd Einck, president of JLT Mobile Computers. “Obviously, there’s money flowing that five or 10 years ago wasn’t flowing. Now they have the ability to go out and purchase technology to shorten and streamline the process of getting information out in the field. Previously,” he says, “you’d get on your radio and call in a license plate and wait to hear back. … Now, [through an in-car computer] an officer has the ability to run a complete Want and Warrant for a car he pulls over so he can determine before he gets out of his car whether the car is stolen [and he should approach it carefully]. He can, in most cases, even pull up a photo of the owner of the vehicle. … A lot of databases are starting to merge between government and public sector, and this is to try and combat terrorism—there’s actually information flowing between government and the public sector for the first time, really, ever.”

JLT makes a line of rugged computer products built with police, fire and EMS squads in mind. The JLT 1205-PS, for example, is a rugged fixed-mount display that, along with such accessories as an attachable keyboard, is particularly well-suited for police cars. The screens are readable in all types of light, including direct sunlight, and have an instant screen-blanking feature, which enables it to quickly go dark in situations such as when an officer is undercover. The device’s overall design is also critical because, according to Einck, police cars are getting smaller, as well as more cramped, as they’re laden with a increasing amount of equipment. Then there’s also the issue of airbag compliance. Einck explains, “There’s a zone up in the dash that’s called the airbag compliance zone, and that’s really the space where you’re allowed to put something. Anywhere outside of that and an airbag may deploy and hit a device and cause it to hit an officer or somebody. So what most officers have to do is disable the airbag. [The JLT 1205-PS] can mount very flush to the dash, so it can be in that airbag compliance zone.”

Fire departments, says Einck, have different requirements. They want larger displays, so that they can pull up numerous windows side by side—say, GPS directions on how to get to a fire, as well as schematics of the building—and all four people seated in the truck can see the screen at once. “And a lot of times they want to have that data both in the vehicle and mounted outside, or in the back of the truck,” says Einck, “so as they’re out fighting the fire they have that data and don’t need to crawl back in the truck to see what’s going on. And our units are fully watertight, sealed. They can take a high-pressure spraydown. You’re just not going to get that with a laptop.”

Nuclear Reservations

Casey Beard is the director of the Morrow County Emergency Management Center (MCEMC) in Oregon and is responsible for protecting from hazards the people and property of Morrow County, Ore. Beard has more than the average list of charges.

“Our first priority is the [Umatilla] Chemical Depot, which now holds somewhere in the vicinity of one-third of the nation’s remaining stockpile of warfare materials, and they’re all in the process of being destroyed; that’ll happen probably over the next five to seven years,” says Beard. “We’re also in the planning zone that could be impacted by an accident or a terrorist attack at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation, and there’s also a nuclear power station there, which is also a publicly operated facility. And then we have a railroad line, which is one of the major east-west rail lines in the western United States, and that runs through the county. Major energy production and distribution facilities are also located in our county, as well as natural gas facilities. So a combination of infrastructure and critical facilities creates a pretty interesting mix of problems, in addition to the normal hazmat spills and winter storms and dust storms and things that we encounter.”

When Beard first came to the job, there wasn’t enough communications technology to support the full crew of first responders. The MCEMC also needed to move massive volumes of data from cameras used to monitor facilities remotely. After first trying to enhance voice communications with additional radios, Beard realized that Wi-Fi would allow them to do so much more, and with Homeland Security funds, EZ Wireless was brought in to implement a wireless solution, as well as the security to meet federal information protection standards. “We created the world’s largest Wi-Fi hotspot,” Beard says. “It’s 1,000 square miles, and it’s been expanding over time. It performs a lot of functions. We run an advanced evacuation system with Wi-Fi controls, variable message signs and drop-arm barricades, cameras. It’s a pretty elaborate system.”

The potential release of a chemical agent plume is also a concern for Morrow County, and tests have been run using non-toxic gases to track the way a hazardous plume might flow, so that in the event of such an incident, first responders could know the course it was taking. “The best way to communicate that data is graphically,” says Beard. “Look at a map, and then you look at a plume overlaid on that map, and you instantly know the situation. If you tried to explain that same situation over a radio, it would be virtually impossible.” All first responders are equipped with rugged handhelds (many have the Recon from TDS) loaded with SoloField, an application made by Tripod Data Systems for capturing and viewing GPS and GIS information on Windows CE and Pocket PC operating systems. In the event of a plume, the data could be pushed out over Wi-Fi to the handhelds.

Day to day, the system enables law enforcement officials to monitor (via digital cameras) areas on the river and major traffic intersections. It also allows for the use of VoIP as an alternative to traditional cellular service, which has proved useful in fighting saboteurs closer to home. “Two weeks ago, a gopher ate through one of the major service lines from one of the commercial phone companies in our area and knocked out service for a considerable amount of time,” says Beard. “Our VoIP and Wi-Fi continued to work, though, so we could still exchange e-mails and communicate over VoIP. And we think that’s important.”

Air Quality Control

“These are the meters that are being used across the board, by anybody who does radiation or chemical detection,” says Harlan Eplan, VP of business development at Global Bay, pointing at a light brown sample meter, called a Ludlum, which looks like a cross between a telescope and a Reagan-era grade-school film projector. “Everyone owns them, they’re not wireless, and no one wants to throw these devices away—people have a huge investment. This is a $3,500 device, and it’s worked for 15 years, and it’s going to work for the next 15 years. The problem is, they want to collect data from them in a little more streamlined fashion.”

Traditionally, someone taking a reading on a Ludlum, or any other environmental meter, would make a note on a notepad or, in an urgent situation, call headquarters and relay the reading and their approximate location. “There was no centralized database, no GIS, no mapping,” says Eplan. Manufacturers, recognizing the need for an update, began to consider incorporating Wi-Fi or Bluetooth into their newest models, but that would still do nothing to help those
with large inventories of older models.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) was in the situation of wanting to improve its monitoring and reporting capabilities, and it approached Global Bay. Building off of its AccessPoint mobile application development platform, Global Bay came up with Hazard Point, a device-agnostic vertical application, which for the DOHMH it deployed on Intermec 700 Series rugged handhelds. “It’s a standard, off-the-shelf device, and it’s got a lot of storage space, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, a wide-area network for transmitting back to the DOHMH and an internal barcode scanner or photo capture, all in one device,” says Eplan.

Additionally, Global Bay partnered with ESRI to incorporate its mapping capabilities, and it retrofitted the old Ludlums with off-the-shelf Bluetooth adapters. “And it’s not just throwing on an adapter,” Sandeep Bhanote, CEO of Global Bay, emphasizes. “It’s basically being able to, for lack of a better word, hack into these old devices to understand how to pull the readings. So there’s a lot of engineering that’s between the Bluetooth adapter and the Intermec. This [Ludlum] just does radiation, but there’s a series of devices that measure gas and air quality. There are gas meters, for example, that can tell whether it’s one of six different types of gas.”

Now when a first responder or environmental investigator go out to take a reading, HazardPoint receives the readings from the Ludlum via Bluetooth, the environmental readings are matched up with the worker’s exact GPS coordinates, and the data is wirelessly transmitted at a frequency of the user’s choice to the HazardPoint server at the DOHMH, where it is immediately available. In the event of an emergency, analysts can quickly create “hot zone” maps and make critical decisions in real time to ensure the public’s safety.

Better still, the city’s investment isn’t limited to one type of inspection or one type of device. With AccessPoint, users can quickly create custom forms as needed, and the software can identify and work with a number of environmental reading devices. “The DOH is standardizing on many inspections using our software,” says Eplan. “With AccessPoint, they’re doing four different inspection programs. It allows them to buy one platform instead of four one-off solutions.” Which is money well spent.
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