At its best, an officer’s patrol car is his or her mobile office. It is chock full of everything they need to get the job done. At its worst, it can be a death trap – chock full of things, and distractions. Auto accidents are consistently among the leading cause of officer deaths, according to The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF). It’s time to ask: Is there a simpler way? How can we retain all of the great technology resources available to officers on the road, but lesson the distractions?
From the moon, to the air to the streets
Rockwell Collins, the communications and aviation company behind the Lunar Launders’ radios and Army Special Operations helicopter cockpits, is now working to improve communication in yet another precarious frontier – law enforcement. Their iForce integrated public safety vehicle solution was created with the intent to bundle pretty much any piece of electronic equipment in a patrol car (radio, lights sirens, license plate reader, video, etc.) into one easy-to-use system. Everything an officer typically controls in-car is condensed inside a single interface. He or she doesn’t have to use one keypad for radar and another for video, a third for lights and sirens and something else for the radio. Agencies can integrate their current products from a number of different companies and bring them together, control and integrate them all through one system, by way of push-button or voice commands.
“There’s a muscle memory factor here in the fact that everything’s in one place,” says Preston Johnson, manager of business development at Rockwell Collins and part-time officer with Mount Vernon (Iowa) PD. Unlike some laptops that integrate control of patrol car functions, Johnson adds iForce will never crash and display “the blue screen of death.”
“If you can imagine flying an MH60 Blackhawk helicopter in the middle of the night, 50-feet off the ground through the mountains of Afghanistan with bad guys shooting at you, if your cockpit instruments fail, you’re a dead man. We’re kind of used to solving problems for folks like that. Having their electronics fail is not an option.”
The iForce system is currently being used by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the California Highway Patrol. ?The California Highway Patrol (CHP) was looking for a unique solution to help them provide better communications interoperability from car to car. When they sat down to design the requirements for their new iForce system, they opted to have a vehicle repeater system put in the car that would allow their portable radios to link back to the vehicle radio and have a significantly greater range. Not only can officers manipulate volume and channels via iForce radio control, they can also cross band and connect radios that do not normally talk to each.
Johnson explains, “If you’re a CHP officer and you roll up on the scene of an incident where maybe the Los Angeles Police Department and some other police or sheriff’s departments are on the scene, and you have radios that allow you to talk to both of them but they wouldn’t normally be able to talk to each other, on your iForce you can select those two radios, press a button that says “cross band” and now the officers responding from those two departments can talk to each other on their radios.” This could be of particular value in anything requiring a multi-agency response, such as a pursuit that spans several jurisdictions.
“The CHP cars enable all of those jurisdictions,” says Johnson. “Even ones that wouldn’t normally be able to talk to each other are able to talk to each other directly.”
Trunking the works
When Paul Wallace, Caption of the Jefferson County (Wisconsin) Sheriff’s Department, put the iForce through its paces on a test drive, he realized another feature the system provides: space. “We fight the battle every year trying to figure out where we’re going to put stuff in the car; it’s a constant battle.”
A little wiggle room is a hot commodity in today’s cruisers. Driving around with tons of hard, pointy equipment is stifling, not to mention somewhat dangerous. Wallace adds he’s “always concerned with the equipment in the car since we keep getting so much of it. We always try to make sure [equipment] is out of the airbag area, but sometimes we’ve just got to … squeeze in as best we can,” He adds, “I’m always worried about the airbags going off and shooting a piece of equipment across the car at one of my officers.”
The all-in-one iForce removes the vast majority of that equipment from the front of the vehicle and relocates it to a tray in the vehicle’s trunk. The freed-up space in front is a huge benefit to already too-tight quarters. “If an officer gets in a wreck, they don’t have to worry about … pedestal-mounted laptops flying around the inside of the car when the airbags go off,” says Johnson. “There’s tremendous officer safety value to having less stuff in the cockpit.
Although the ‘meat and potatoes’ of the system is typically relegated to the car’s caboose, it doesn’t have to be. “There’s really no magic about how it’s installed,” assures Johnson. The French National Gendarmerie is currently working with Rockwell Collins to have pieces of iForce installed in door handles and roof liners, as their cars are so small. And that’s just one example of how this solution comes made-to-order.
Johnson points out Rockwell Collins is looking to bring modular open systems architecture (MOSA), common in commercial aviation and gaining ground on their military side, to public safety. This basically means agencies can add new components as desired, without having to redesign the software. Say an agency wanted to add a license plate reader to their fleet of cruisers. They wouldn’t need to purchase a whole new iForce. Instead, the appropriate interface control software would be added onto the existing system, the LPR hardware wired in, and the software changed so the iForce display now includes the capability to control the LPR and make use of the data the LPR generates. “Open systems architecture allows us to integrate with pretty much any technology equipment you might want to put in a patrol car. And that includes radios,” says Johnson.
Additional features on the iForce include a memo button on the hand controller that records voice memos should an officer need to remember something later, a customizable graphic interface, front and rear radar control on the touch screen and video sharing between vehicles. “If you’re seeing something and you’re not sure what it is, or you just want to send some situational awareness video with another car, you could send the video and they’d be able to watch it in their vehicle as they’re approaching a scene,” says Johnson.
The folks at Rockwell Collins are still working on 360-degree video that will warn an officer outside of the car if there’s an impending crash, or if it detects an object on a collision course behind him or her while they’re out of the car (a horn or siren will sound). If an officer is backed up to a wall writing a report and the video detects someone or something moving up in a blind spot, it will beep and indicate where the potential threat is coming from.
Intuitive by design
During his test drive, Wallace was curious as to how quickly his deputies might ‘pick up’ on this kind of software. But Johnson assured him the iForce is intuitive by design. In the design stages, the iForce team took into account things like what colors law enforcement might prefer, where to put the buttons and how big to make them, how to represent information, and so on. “The requirements that a helicopter pilot experiences in his high stress environment are the same kind of things that a law enforcement officer experiences in his high stress environment,” says Johnson.
Wallace’s concerns seemed unfounded, anyway, because at the end of the 25 minute drive he was navigating through the each screen with ease, and he didn’t seem none too frustrated by the experience.
“I wish I could figure out a way to put them in all my cars,” he stated “Most of the equipment that we have [now] would just interface right in with that. It would be a beautiful system to get.”