After investigating a homicide for four years, Det. Sgt. Mike Brower had run out of leads. His luck changed, however, when the Utah County Sheriff's Office became part of a data sharing system connecting 14 different public safety agencies throughout northern Utah.
Using a system that provided access to the databases of several local jurisdictions, the Utah County Sheriff's Office was able to obtain thousands of names and incident reports. While searching through the records of nearby Orem Police Department, Brower uncovered information that proved crucial to his investigation.
"It was just a very small report, but it gave us information on where our main suspect could be located," he says. "Essentially, it solved the case for us. Without that little piece of information, we may have still been spinning our wheels."
Expanding the definition of interoperability
Interoperability, or the ability of emergency responders to work together, has grown in importance since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Other recent events, like the communications challenges in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, have continued to reinforce the need for interoperability within local and state agencies.
"Better information would have been an optimal weapon against Katrina," the bipartisan congressional committee assigned to investigate Hurricane Katrina wrote in a February 2006 report. "Information sent to the right people at the right place at the right time. Information moved within agencies, across departments and between jurisdictions of government as well."
To work together in the 21st century, agencies must expand their concept of interoperability beyond radio communications to include the use of data management software systems. An integrated data system is essential to making fully informed decisions and achieving the goal of total interoperability.
The need for interoperability goes beyond preparing for natural disasters or terrorist attacks, however. Communicating and sharing data with other agencies on a daily basis is vital to helping public safety personnel identify crime trends and prevention strategies.
"Building radio towers and buying handheld radios will get an agency through a crisis, but what about day-to-day operations?" poses Ben Godfrey, a research and design manager for Spillman Technologies, located in Salt Lake City, Utah. "A detective won't switch to the interoperable radio channel for a routine investigation. If, however, the data is available through a user-friendly data sharing tool, the officer is more likely to find the right information."
Reaping the daily rewards of expanded data
Access to a robust data sharing system can influence the outcome of even routine events. For example, a police officer on patrol may notice a speeding car and pull over the suspect. After obtaining the suspect's driver's license, the officer can run a query of the suspect's name through the data sharing program on his laptop computer. The officer then receives a list of possible matching records from other neighboring and cross-jurisdictional agencies.
Without a data sharing system, the officer would only be able to view records from his own jurisdiction or from a single database and would likely miss related arrests or warrants.
In Utah County, a data sharing system implemented two years ago continues to help the sheriff's office crack down on individual offenses, Lt. Dave Snyder says. It also has helped the agency identify crime trends, like a theft ring targeting major cities throughout the state.
The agency had long suspected that so-called "frequent flyers" in the Utah County jail were committing crimes across the state, he says. Until his agency became part of a data sharing system, however, they had no idea how widespread the issue was.