Ringing Busy: Managing Commercial Telecommunications in a Public Safety World

Policing organizations continue to be early adopters of a range of communications technologies and services.

A police officer, alone, has a vehicle stopped by the side of the road late at night. A few miles back he'd checked the plates with the DMV database through his onboard laptop and isolated the name of the vehicle owner. Now that he's stopped, he's pulled out his Blackberry and queries a national criminal database to check if the car's registered owner — who'd been driving erratically — has any outstanding warrants. The officer waits. He waits. No response. He can't raise dispatch. He puts his Blackberry back in its holster, opens the cruiser door and begins walking toward the vehicle.

This scene usually does not end badly. Almost always a window will come down; a license and registration will be handed over, and another happy customer will go home or go to the cruiser's back seat.

Neither is the scene some far off fiction. As always, policing organizations continue to be early adopters of a range of communications technologies and services. The scene described above is based on real situations in such places as Lake Township, Ohio; the Cape Breton Regional Municipality in Nova Scotia, Canada; and West Yorkshire, England.

But as police and other public safety agencies begin to use these new tools and services, as they integrate the latest and greatest gadgets and gizmos into their daily work lives, they are becoming increasingly dependent upon "commercial" telecommunications systems, services and applications. This exploding use of the commercial networks by agencies, such as the police, may be introducing new threats and risks to the public safety equation.

The wireless explosion
A tsunami of commercial wireless communications products and services is washing over the world. And it's only just begun. Just in very recent past, the telecommunications industry has introduced:

  • Smartphones — Is it a cell phone? Is it a mobile data terminal? Is it a mobile personal digital assistant? It's actually all three. These souped-up cell phones — now personified by the dominant Blackberry and competitors such as Ericsson R380 — have both phone and computer-like features (e-mail, scheduling, Internet, custom applications) and are becoming ubiquitous throughout government. There are at least 4 million Blackberry users in the United States, and a quarter of those are in public safety organizations.
  • Cellular Push To Talk (also known as PTT or PoC) is another communications technology with a split personality. With the features of both a cell phone (one-to-one communications) and a mobile radio (one to many), cellular PTT use in the United States is exploding and will almost double to nearly 34 million users between 2004 and 2009. One of its strengths is that it's everywhere. Three nationwide networks (Nextel's Direct Connect, Verizon Wireless' Push-to-Talk and Sprint's Ready Link) were recently evaluated for use by public safety organizations. The Mitre Corp. study said the technology showed promise as a back-up system and as a method to augment the coverage of traditional mobile radio systems.
  • Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Enabled Devices — such as radios, cell phones tablet PCs and other wireless devices which can, for example, provide GIS mapping information on scene to first responders, or be used for virtual real-time personnel and asset tracking (i.e. GIS systems that support EMS for example). The Maui (Hawaii) Police Department uses a GIS-based system that allows dispatchers to track the locations of people using a wireless phone to call in an emergency.
  • Mobile Data Terminals (MDTs) — in widespread use among police and EMS, MDTs often enable specific mission-critical applications, such as emergency patient care reporting applications for EMS; DMV, criminal or other remote database access for police; and automated vehicle location (AVL) for anyone running and dispatching a fleet of vehicles over a wide area.
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