Best practices in mobile data communications

     The Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) covers an expansive geographic area that includes the communities of San Clemente, Aliso Viejo, Dana Point, Orange, Rancho Santa Margarita, Santiago Canyon, Stanton, Lake Forest and Laguna Hills. The...


     The Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) covers an expansive geographic area that includes the communities of San Clemente, Aliso Viejo, Dana Point, Orange, Rancho Santa Margarita, Santiago Canyon, Stanton, Lake Forest and Laguna Hills. The varied terrain and large area that our deputies patrol posed a number of obstacles when we began to implement a true mobile data communications strategy seven years ago.

     Since then, we've been piecing together a wireless data solution that has maximized the efficiency of our mobile workers by better using the available cellular data networks and county-owned Wi-Fi hotspots. We've found ways to let our deputies perform their jobs with greater flexibility and productivity.

     What we learned from the process may help other departments with their own roll-outs or with implementing enhancements to their existing mobile deployment systems.

Background

     Today, the OCSD has two distinct groups of mobile data users: investigators and patrolling officers. Both groups are highly mobile and spend most of their workdays in their vehicles. The investigators and patrol officers are equipped with laptops fitted with Wi-Fi and cellular modem cards. When they are near an OCSD Wi-Fi hotspot, these personnel use a Wi-Fi card to connect to the Internet at high speed. From the field, they'll connect to the cellular data network.

     Both groups of users access similar networked resources in order to do their jobs. The investigators mainly need wireless access for e-mail, Intranet, shared folders on OCSD servers, and the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS).

     In addition to these applications, patrol officers also rely on our computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and mapping applications.

     To put a truly mobile solution in place, we looked for a variety of ways to maximize the efficiency of the high-speed broadband solution used across the county. Both investigators and officers need to have always-on access to numerous network resources and state and federal databases from wherever they might be. So our goal was to create a way for patrolling officers and investigators to have seamless and secure access to multiple data networks, key applications and criminal databases.

     Upon deployment of laptops and data cards, we found that our officers and investigators were not able to take full advantage of our mobile solution. Computer applications were crashing when wireless network connections were lost, which was common given the diverse geography of Orange County. Data was lost when these network connections were reset. Most importantly, our officers were having to focus on managing network configurations and connections, not law enforcement and public safety. We needed to make sure that our technology did not require our officers to become IT experts, because they have far more important work to do than troubleshooting their laptops.

     We found that Orange County's mobile challenges could be distilled down to a few key issues that most state and local government deployments must address: wireless coverage gaps and interruptions, lack of roaming capabilities, and concerns over security.

     • Wireless coverage gaps and interruptions

     We've all experienced the frustration of a dropped cell-phone call. The issues are far more problematic when it's a wireless data application on a laptop. As the OCSD investigators and officers traveled across the county, they would pass in and out of wireless coverage areas — driving through a tunnel, into a parking garage or just traveling in an area of the county which had limited cellular coverage. When officers entered one of these areas, they'd lose their network connections and applications would lose their connections to back-end servers. The applications would then lock up, which required them to be restarted.

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