While local governments are developing high-speed wireless (WiFi) networks to give low-income residents free or inexpensive Internet access, and to encourage economic development, they also are using them to improve the efficiency of public safety operations. A WiFi network is less expensive than cellular competitors, a critical factor in Philadelphia’s decision to build one. “Right now we pay for data wireless for a number of field workers, such as those in public safety,” says Philadelphia’s CIO Dianah Neff. “This is $70 per employee per month, so we limit the number of people who have access.”
Philadelphia expects to pay $20 per month for each of its 2,000 mobile workers using WiFi, plus eliminate T1 lines in 300 remote buildings, including fire and police stations. “We can save as much as $2 million annually starting in the third year,” Neff says.
WiFi is spreading
Cities and counties already are using citywide WiFi networks to support their mobile workers, including those in law enforcement, firefighting and emergency medical service. Law enforcement officials use WiFi to scan local and national databases as well as complete paperwork, capture officers’ interaction with motorists or to watch public areas, and scan car tags for vehicle or owner registration.
Fire departments typically digitize manuals, floor plans and other information so those using WiFi-enabled laptops can assess the appropriate response to a fire. Using wireless medical devices, emergency medical responders transmit patient readings to mobile units using wireless modems that send the data to hospitals before patients arrive. Paramedics also can transmit their reports from the scene.
Medford, Ore., spent $700,000 ($500,000 of which came from federal grants) to deploy its network over the city’s 24-square-mile area for police, fire and city employee use. Ripon, Calif., built a $500,000 network covering eight square miles, and Fresno, Calif., spent $750,000 for the first phase of building its network to address all areas of public safety, according to the “Second Anniversary Report” from MuniWireless, a website featuring municipal wireless broadband projects.
In 2004, New Orleans used video surveillance over a WiFi network to help address increasing crime. “[Our] pilot projects saw an immediate 58 percent reduction in the murder rate in those areas, and similar reductions in other violent crime,” says the city’s CIO Greg Meffert.
New Orleans planned to roll out data applications for its police as soon as the network was fully deployed. But with the city crippled by Katrina, the network is used for other applications. “We were a third of the way done when Katrina hit,” Meffert says. At that point, $3 million had been spent — money secured from the city and the federal government.
Morrow County, Ore., the location of the Umatilla Chemical Depot, hosts about one-third of the nation’s stockpile of warfare materials, is home to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and also operates a nuclear power station. The county also includes natural gas and energy production and distribution facilities.
Because a major natural or manmade disaster striking any of those facilities can have devastating consequences, the Morrow County Emergency Management Center’s (MCEMC) team of first responders completed a $2 million, 1,000-square-mile WiFi network last month to give its public safety entities monitoring and emergency response capabilities.
Cameras on the network stream real-time color video to the center to monitor its higher risk facilities. The same cameras also monitor the highways so the staff can respond in 10 minutes or less when a chemical disaster occurs. To quickly evacuate residents, MCEMC will use the cameras and the network to re-direct traffic by controlling traffic lights, drop arm barriers and message signs.
“The captain of a tug moving barges needs to know about any major emergencies on land, so we deployed WiFi access points mounted on buoys on the rivers and waterways to provide warnings to watercraft,” says MCEMC Director Casey Beard. “These also back up the land-based access points. We can remotely operate un-manned fire boats’ hoses, valves and sprinklers to fight hazardous materials fires on or near shores.”
The center’s main phone lines use voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) phones so staff can use the Internet to call when regular phone lines or cellular networks fail. Emergency response vehicles are equipped with mobile WiFi access so they can stay connected to the network while en route to hospitals. The network complies with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act so patient data can be wirelessly transmitted and with the Federal Information Protection Standard.
In one well-planned and coordinated effort, Morrow County addressed the needs of its various public safety entities, while creating a multi-agency accessible communications and operations management network. “Nothing could match WiFi for moving large volumes of data,” Beard says.
More to come
As cities and counties become more comfortable with basic communication over WiFi, other technologies will be brought to bear. After 18 months of development, Oklahoma City is testing its network this month. The system originally was planned to allow police to complete reports in the field and access mug shots and centralized records. However, officials now are considering expanding its use to geographic information systems to automatically route fire trucks around hazards, such as unsafe bridges, or direct firefighters to hydrants with the highest water pressure. The next stage may include the ability for mobile personnel to see images captured from video cameras around the city and a VoIP system with universal phone numbers and message routing for police officers to improve communication with residents.
More than 300 U.S. cities have deployed citywide wireless networks, issued requests for proposals to have them built or created steering committees to pursue the initiatives. The networks hold the potential to significantly improve public safety.
Speaking at this year’s Wireless Internet Institute’s Digital Cities conference, Oklahoma City CIO Mark Meier suggested that cities considering WiFi should ensure they have a high quality of service to give public safety officials the necessary bandwidth in an emergency, especially if the general public also is using the network. He also suggested that they test their network radios to determine if they can travel throughout the coverage area without losing the signal or data; watch costs and maintain the network using as few people as possible.
Meffert also advises communities considering building a WiFi network to plan one that handles communications with public safety personnel and video surveillance. “We were able to wall off the public safety part of the network, and you’ll have a much more connected, complete network,” he says.
Craig Settles is the Oakland, Calif.-based author of “Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless.”