Public Safety Networks in Motion

Wireless technology will help police, fire fighters, and healthcare professionals do a better job.
By Samuel Greengard

Article Summary
In the aftermath of September 11, public safety officials are looking for ways to ensure that they're able to provide essential services during a crisis. In addition, these agencies are exploring new capabilities and technologies that can help them provide better and more efficient service on a daily basis. Using wireless, standards-based Internet Protocol (IP) communications with uninterrupted access to data, European public safety officials and law enforcement are designing the networks of the future.

In recent years, public safety has emerged as a high-level concern. Increasing crime and national security concerns have forced public safety officials to seek new tools and technologies that can help deliver results. With its close borders and high population densities, Europe has additional concerns and challenges in trying to protect the public. Although police and other officials are increasingly turning to high-tech tools to aid in their efforts to fight criminal activity, current systems have numerous limitations.

For example, when a police officer stops a vehicle, it is nearly impossible to identify the driver in the field with a high degree of certainty. Lacking fingerprints, photographs, and instant access to crime databases, officers sometimes let a suspect go and only later find out that the person is on a wanted list. "Too often, there is a general lack of visibility," notes Sander Bakker, a public sector marketing manager for Cisco Systems® in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA).

This situation is forcing governments and public agencies to confront the problem with an array of new technologies. Through the use of "networks in motion," officials are able to provide uninterrupted access to information on a real-time basis—bypassing traditional phone networks, if necessary. By putting databases and various tools in police cars, fire department vehicles, and other locations, those on the front lines of public safety can make faster and smarter decisions.

Tools of the Trade
There is no shortage of opportunities for networks in motion. Officials are exploring an array of leading-edge tools: fingerprint scanners in police cars, on-board computers that display mug shots and link to crime databases, cameras that employ facial recognition features, and general process improvements. These tools allow officers and others to process arrests in the field rather than behind a desk at a police station. "The idea is to reduce administrative tasks so that officers are able to spend more time in the field and use that time more efficiently. Ultimately, the goal is to reduce crime," Bakker says.

Driving this trend is the emergence of wireless networks, including mobile Internet Protocol (IP), wireless local area networks (LANs), and personal area networks (PANs). Mobile IP uses a router in each vehicle to maintain a constant wireless connection with headquarters and other vehicles. It can seamlessly switch among several wireless technologies, including Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), and satellites. That allows it to maintain a connection in different service areas and under almost any set of conditions. Combined with Global Positioning System (GPS) technology and specialized software, it's possible to view the location of backup vehicles or assess where rescue or firefighting resources are located at any given moment. It's also possible to point a digital video camera into a crowd and have an analyst use facial recognition software remotely to spot criminals, terrorists, and others.

Net Gains
Such capabilities also benefit medical providers and victims, Bakker says. An ambulance connected to a mobile IP network can transmit a patient's vitals while traveling to a hospital and receive charts and physician analysis—greatly increasing the odds of survival. In addition, when the ambulance arrives, doctors can act and treat without delay. And if the hospital is not equipped to handle a patient, the system can direct the ambulance to another facility.

At the same time, wireless LANs as well as PANs are making an impact. By networking devices and groups of people, police and firefighters can deploy personnel and resources at maximum efficiency. For instance, the leader of a rescue squad could know where each team member is inside a building or in a stadium. With cameras, sensors, and other devices, it is possible to gauge conditions at different locations and know how events are changing from minute to minute.

Building a Safety Net
In the United States, some public safety agencies, such as the police departments in Seal Beach, California, and Sacramento, California, are beginning to use these technologies. In Europe, a few countries, including the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, are considering public safety networks in motion more closely and, in a few cases, establishing pilot programs. While adoption is still in the nascent stages, the technology is poised to pay dividends in the years ahead. Says Bakker: "At a time when public safety is at the forefront, mobile IP and other networking tools are able to deliver results."

March 6, 2003

About the Author
Samuel Greengard is a business and technology writer based in Burbank, California.