Montana Logs On
One of the key benefits of Montana’s new Mobile Data Terminal System is that it is keeping communications open among Montana’s law enforcement agencies. The system, which connects law enforcement officers and agencies in five counties with each other, also connects with the Montana Highway Patrol (MHP), the Montana Criminal Justice Information Network and the National Crime Information Center.
“Now, officers can access driver’s license and registration information directly from their vehicles instead of calling into dispatch and doing it through voice communications,” says Charles Larson, communications supervisor of the MHP and technical coordinator for the project. “Officers can communicate by data links with their dispatch centers, whether county, city or highway patrol. The center can send e-mail to officers in their cars. Officers can submit reports from their cars — answer questions about and even revise the reports.”
While most states assembled dedicated communications systems for law enforcement years ago, Montana officials have struggled with the daunting challenges posed by the state’s 145,000 square miles of rough mountainous geography, long distances between cities and sparse population. The mountains make it difficult and expensive to lay dedicated data lines, while the state’s population of 902,000 — smaller than the population of Dallas — provides a tax base too small to lease existing lines economically.
Two years ago, a $3.75 million grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) made it possible for Montana to take the first steps toward building a network for its first responders. MHP, which acquired the grant, wanted to build a system that would connect police officers in five of the state’s most populous counties: Cascade, Lewis and Clark, Gallatin, Silver Bow and Yellowstone. All five are located in the south central and southwestern reaches of the state.
The one-time grant made it necessary to commission and buy a system rather than lease one. What kind of statewide communications network goes for $3.75 million? Dunne Communications Inc. of Anaconda, Mont., came up with the answer: a wireless backhaul network using microwave radio equipment.
The term backhaul refers to a wireless system capable of hauling data back to the wires available at communications centers. “Other forms of backhaul such as fiber and leased lines would have been impractical and costly,” says Pat Dunne, vice president and project manager of Dunne Communications.
Dunne engineered Montana’s wireless backhaul system using microwave radio equipment, a network management system, and back dish passive repeaters made by Stratex Networks Inc. Headquartered in San Jose, Calif., Stratex provides high-speed wireless transmission equipment and systems for data, voice and video communication systems.
Dunne’s design located mobile database stations atop mountains rising as high as 10,000 feet. The base stations, supported by a network of repeaters, receive and transmit data from Highway Patrol and police squad cars operating in each of the five counties on the network. Overall, the system links offices with officers in the field by way of mobile computer terminals installed in each vehicle.
“This network is an important advancement for law enforcement throughout the state, and by extension for Homeland security,” Larson says. “The microwave links provide invaluable communications coverage over vast distances, where leased line costs would have been prohibitive, and in some cases, were not available.”
According to Dunne, the Stratex network management system enables dispatchers to monitor the entire backbone and zero in on problems. “It monitors the system, and if a failure occurs, the system indicates where it is and what’s wrong — with a map on the computer screen. After 18 months in operation, we’ve had very few problems.”
The system is also secure, Dunne says, thanks to a proprietary Motorola protocol and an encryption scheme.
With the completion of the first phase of the project last year, MHP applied for a second NHTSA grant of $1.83 million to develop a second phase of the system. “Phase two will expand the backbone,” Larson says. “It will also provide more in-car equipment and bring the emergency medical system and fire departments into the system.”