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What’s new in law enforcement technology: Part 1

Part 1 of a 2-part series
Read part 2

I have just completed the ultimate excursion for public safety information technology (IT), and the message I received was crystal clear – technology is driving our efforts to be more effective with less personnel. I started at the 31st Annual International Association of Police Chiefs – Law Enforcement Information Management (IACP – LEIM) conference held in Greensboro, NC. From there, I traveled to the 22nd Annual Meeting and Conference of the Association of Caribbean Commissioners of Police held in Nassau, Bahamas.

A common theme I heard from public safety leaders in both countries is that all national disasters are local first and while technology is certainly helping us to make a difference in our response, it is sometimes over promised and under delivered. It was interesting to hear from other countries that national governments continue to be non-committal when it comes to technology and governance. So while we wait for them to stand up firm and stable, local and state agencies must move on to stay ahead of criminal elements and be prepared for the next disaster. Keeping up is not good enough anymore.

Here in the states, I am excited that a large federal grant program is underway to help state and local public safety agencies achieve significant improvements in their interoperable communications. By now, all states should have completed a statewide plan and these funds are intended to fill in the largest gaps of these plans. This grant process is known as the Public Safety Interoperable Communication (PSIC) Grant Program. It is a robust collaboration between the US Department of Commerce and the US Department of Homeland Security where $958.9 million will be made available for grant awards through each State Administrative Agency (SAA). So start working with your SAA right away because there promises to be lots of tension and discussion between some major metropolitan areas and the SAA’s over grant protocol.

So exactly what is this technology that is driving our efforts to do more with less personnel? At the IACP – LEIM, the US Department of Justice – National Institute of Justice, reported that the following technology is being sought after in monumental proportions and gave a brief overview of some pilot programs currently underway:

Locater technology

Locater technology assists by tracking personnel in buildings in a three-dimensional setting. The most significant challenge is maintaining a radio frequency (RF) connection with these first responders indoors. Generally, RF does not work very effective indoors. It doe not penetrate walls very well. This new technology focuses on indoor use and allows users of mobile devices to communicate one-to-one or one-to many. Using this technology, supervisors can locate field personnel quickly and effectively in order to establish communication that is critical to their location. It is amazing how just a few months ago, automatic vehicle locator (AVL) was cutting edge technology. But in today’s law enforcement world where first responders are constantly out of their vehicle, they demand that critical information reach devices on their belt. This is the new frontier.

Bi-directional amplifiers

For those who cannot achieve this next frontier just yet, improved and effective in-building radio coverage using current technology, such as bi-directional amplifiers (BDA), is sounding out loud and clear. While this technology typically cannot locate personnel indoors, it does allow them maintain communication outside of sound structures. Strategically installed throughout buildings that have poor radio frequency penetration, these BDA’s allow first responders to receive critical information from outside and vice-versa when the radio signals hit the BDA located inside the building and amplify them. In addition to the technical challenge of communicating with radio frequency indoors, public safety is currently looking for model policy and legislation that provides planning and zoning priority for public safety communications in new construction. This type of legislation is generally opposed by builders, who challenge any new legislation that would mandate new construction to provide in-building RF coverage.

Speaking of legislation, I am happy to report that progress is being made to require new commercial construction with Internet protocol (IP) telephony systems to provide an automatic number indicator (ANI) and automatic location indicator (ALI), such as “703-555-1212 / 2003 Mill Road – Suite 1509”. Currently when an emergency communications center receives a 911 call from a commercial location that uses an IP telephony system, the callback number displayed at the communications center is the building’s main number. And the address is just the building address, it generally does not provide a room number. During a crisis, public safety needs to know exactly what number the call came from and the exact location within the building in order to respond safely and effectively.

Non-terrestrial mobile radio service

Be on the lookout for non-terrestrial voice technology, such as satellites and tethered and untethered devices, such as communications balloons. As with all new technology, this one has its pros and cons. On the positive side, satellites communicate from 22,000 miles in space, so it is much more secure from natural or man-made disasters. One satellite can cover one-third of the earth’s surface, so deploying many expensive towers could become a thing of the past. Satellite communication operates in a completely different frequency spectrum that does not use traditional public safety spectrum, which as you know, is very scarce and sacred. It can become interoperable with almost any other land-based voice and data network. The down side of satellite communication is cost (currently the biggest, as I see it); it requires a clear view of the southern sky (making this technology ineffective during cloudy days or while indoors) and can have a significantly long start-up time from a cold start.

Nevertheless, this technology continues to make significant progress and I would not be surprised if pubic safety started using this technology regularly for mission critical communications. Some agencies, such as the New Mexico State Police, currently use this technology for their mobile data communication because there are no other options. Some of these troopers cover an area the size of a small northeastern state with no infrastructure.

Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP)

Surely by now you have heard of voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) technology. Whether it is in the public safety environment or through the commercial landline at home, most of you know there are advantages and disadvantages when using this technology. While VOIP has been credited with saving many public safety agencies tens of thousands of dollars in communications costs as well as significantly extending the coverage of a traditional land mobile radio system, it has some risks. Two basic essentials of all VOIP solutions are a network connection and the Internet or intranet. While electricity is essential to both traditional land mobile radios and VOIP solutions, it seems that considerable attention has been given to power redundancy at critical communications

Very serious consideration is being given by pubic safety IT professionals to launch mission critical communications that are IP based. Some advantages include a more standards-based technology which allow you to take audio from any device, break it down into packets of data, and transfer it through the Internet or intranet to any other device connected to this network. So what used to be limitations by incompatible radios, manufacturers, distance and lack of traditional land mobile radio infrastructure, today the sky is the limit. These IP based systems have tremendous capacity, capable of handling millions of users.

The biggest issue that continues to bog this technology down is trust and the perception of reliability. It has been said a million times but it is worth repeating here. It is human nature to resist change. Multiply that times one hundred when you are talking about public safety, and with good reason. Our communications systems are the lifeline when dealing with life or death situations. We often say “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”. But our nation’s public safety radio systems are broken. Most are antiquated and most do not interoperate with other radio systems for lack of standards (almost every vendor has their own platform).

Another issue in the IP telephony world is the need by law enforcement to lawfully intercept VOIP telephone conversations. Previously, when law enforcement needed to deploy a lawful telephone conversation interception, the investigator would simply coordinate with the telephone company’s law enforcement division and, providing all of the legal paperwork was in order, the intercept occurred. With VOIP telephony, however, lawfully intercepting telephone conversations for investigation purposes can be a significant challenge because identifying and working with an Internet Service Provider (ISP) has proven difficult for law enforcement agencies.

Next: A look at video innovations, image sharing developments and new voice response technology

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Capt. Reyes, Alexandria (VA) PD, is currently the Arlandria Area Commander in Alexandria. He was formerly assigned to the CommTech Program (formerly the AGILE Program), one of the most successful programs of the National Institute of Justice.

While at NIJ, he managed public safety radio interoperability operations for the City of Alexandria. Captain Reyes commanded the Emergency Communications Section of the Alexandria PD and chaired the Metro Washington Council of Governments Police Technology Subcommittee, which focuses on regional technology issues impacting law enforcement.

He chairs the VA State Interoperability Executive Committee and sits on the Law Enforcement Information Management Section of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the US Department of Homeland Security’s SAFECOM Advisory Working Group.

Captain Reyes is a native of New Mexico and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from New Mexico State University. He is presently working on his Master’s Degree in Public Administration with a concentration in Administration of Justice at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA.