Five things you need to know about keeping your officers connected

One of the most frustrating experiences for an officer is to lose access to critical information while on the job due to a dropped network signal. Issues around mobile connectivity can be an all too familiar scenario for today's public safety officers out in the field. No longer is access to data in the field a perk; it's become a mission-critical necessity. And as the number of police officers in the field grows, so too does the need to wirelessly transmit incident reports, access license plate information and manage time sheets from the vehicle. Mobile technology empowers agencies to increase productivity, officer morale and community safety.

The availability of wireless technologies and tools to support mobile workers has created a plethora of choices for network administrators and IT managers who must carefully deliberate over the best applications to use. But, with seemingly endless choices comes the unenviable task of figuring out how to integrate these data transfer technologies so they work together. How the networks and applications interact must ultimately cause no disruption to the end-user and require minimal ongoing management.

Agencies commonly use a combination of software to perform dispatch processes, records management and vehicle location. These applications are coupled with private wireless networks, public cellular networks, laptops, mobile handsets and more. Configuring all of these elements to work together as a cohesive system is a constant challenge that requires IT managers to incur programming costs, not to mention the potential integration woes.

Despite all of these choices, mobile users experience dropped network connectivity as they pass through tunnels or under bridges and must manually reconnect to the network or select an alternative network depending on their location. With all of these choices, officers are still left with gaps in the data they are receiving or sending. Additionally, IT managers are forced to layer security applications on top of already disparate systems to ensure personal information is safe as it travels across the wireless network. These issues force agencies to limit the number of new tools they implement, such as a new GPS application — which currently has no standard data protocol — as they only add complexity to an already difficult task.

Middleware, the layer of software between an application and the network, is one way to attack this problem, but middleware solutions aren't always intuitive. These solutions often do not have the flexibility of a plug-and-play solution and may still require additional programming to connect and communicate with various networks. Middleware provides a good foundation, but what agencies need is more. Agencies now can create a seamless multi-jurisdiction, multi-network, multi-protocol and multi-application communications blanket by leveraging connectionware.

Connectionware, which can be thought of as Middleware 2.0, extends beyond traditional middleware by connecting data sources and focusing on mobile data interoperability. It is an integrated component that translates, transfers and ties together data as it travels between applications and the network. Connectionware translates the languages of each application and network and creates a seamless conversation, with the added value of interpretation, so that each party understands what is being communicated.

Ultimately, configuring multiple wireless networks and wireless applications need not be an insurmountable task. Here are five things that must be considered when building a mobile network.

Security, security, security

It is mandatory that users respect and secure the public data shared over wireless networks. While this is the very reason that many public safety organizations select private wireless networks, network security cannot be solely relied upon. Protecting the data itself in the wireless environment, be that on a public or private wireless network, is paramount to meeting federal guidelines and critical to public safety. When choosing connectionware, look for a solution that offers Mobile VPN technology including data encryption, encapsulation and verification.

Before any data transmission occurs, such as sending a user name, the VPN tunnel needs to be in place. Otherwise, hackers could detect weaknesses and attack. The VPN tunnel encrypts the data with standards such as FIPS 140-1 and FIPS 140-2, and encapsulates the data with a secure proprietary standard so that no outside source can access the information. Once the data is received, the connectionware will validate the data and return it to its pre-encrypted state completing the transmission.

Data transmission can then be authenticated for each user. Often done via a user name and password in combination with a token key or biometric device, authentication provides the officer with access to the network itself. Connectionware validates the password with the token key or biometric device and applies a static IP address to identify the user with the agency's database.

Leverage the best network

Many agencies use privately owned or managed wireless data networks in combination with public cellular networks to create a full coverage zone over the district. In multi-jurisdiction agencies, these networks can vary greatly in accessibility and performance creating a multitude of problems: officers needing to manually switch between networks and applications, IT managers dealing with overloaded networks because too many users are on the network at a given time, and applications needing to be reconfigured to meet each network's protocol. Connectionware provides the utopic ability to achieve a single IP network experience.

Once thought unfeasible, networks with varying speeds now can be easily integrated through connectionware. As faster networks are deployed, connectionware provides IT managers with the ability to easily migrate its applications between standards and speeds without creating bottlenecks or latency in the data. Connectionware also allows IT managers to automatically configure network connections based on the department's preferred choice. For example, if two networks are simultaneously available, the program can be configured to automatically pick the network of choice, which agencies can determine based on signal strength, time of day, associated network cost and the application itself.

Get data to where it's going

Connectivity to wireless networks can be disrupted by environmental challenges such as bridges and valleys. It costs officers precious moments as they try to reconfigure their connection, often forcing them to make decisions without all the information they need. This lengthy process can be negated by connectionware because it automatically reconnects officers to the network when a signal interruption occurs.

Not only does connectionware integrate networks into a seamless coverage area, but it also manages the connection of the applications to the network itself. When a network signal is dropped, for example, most applications will automatically shut down. This results in lost data if the data isn't buffered or on an open socket connection. Connectionware does both, keeping applications running smoothly as the system reconnects to the network and continues to send/receive data where it left off when the signal was dropped.

Translation for applications

No, this is not a sign of new programming languages, but connectionware is a way for managers to be prepared in case departments adopt applications with differing data formats. It's also a way to leverage existing applications that may not speak the same data language. For example, GPS data does not currently have a protocol of choice, and GPS applications have not been standardized. There are a multitude of formats including NMEA, TAIP and Garmin to name a few. This presents a rather difficult challenge for many IT managers because more often than not, the data source does not use the same data format as the application — rendering applications virtually useless. Until now, IT managers had two options: they could limit themselves to choosing applications based on matching data formats or they could invest in customized programming and time-consuming testing.

Connectionware fortunately has the ability to bring interoperability to incompatible GPS data sources and GPS applications such as dispatch, customer applications and AVL systems. This doesn't just work in a one-to-one configuration; connectionware provides multiple applications with access to the GPS data by adapting the GPS receiver data to the format and transport the application requires. The connectionware resides between the applications and the data source providing the standard and converting it into the language(s) required. It's agnostic and provides agencies with the freedom to choose the applications and devices they desire.

Seamless management

The point of tasking computers to manage data is that it can be completed intuitively with less time required by the end-user. However, if a department is using two networks to achieve adequate coverage, and each officer must manually configure his connection as he travels back and forth between networks, he is wasting valuable time. In situations where stopping to reconfigure a connection is not possible, the dropped connection can potentially put the officer at risk as critical information will not be received or delivered.

One might think the various network and application features would require a vast amount of time to configure — and they do with no strategy or middleware — but connectionware provides the benefit of managing the data conversion, integration of applications and network connectivity without engaging the officers in the field. Upon implementation, IT managers can configure the connectionware to automatically select the most appropriate network as officers travel through the jurisdiction. The connectionware intuitively manages the application-to-application and application-to-device relationships while seamlessly switching networks anonymously to the officer.

Make the best choices

An early adopter of wireless technologies, public safety agencies were once limited to the types of applications they could adopt depending on their existing network. With connectionware, IT managers are free to make the best choices for their deployments without hesitation. Gone are the days of lost data, dropped networks and manual reconfiguration — connectionware addresses the connectivity issues at the network and application level to provide agencies with a seamless system. Agencies can look to the future knowing their investment will easily integrate with new protocols and tools as the industry changes. It's all about giving the customer the power to decide.

Mike Bourre joined Radio IP Software Inc. in 2000 and was appointed vice president of sales and marketing in 2002. His career spans more than 18 years working with software for computer-aided dispatch and telecommunications. He can be reached at (514) 890-6070 Ext. 420 or at mike.bourre@radio-ip.com.

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