Alexandria Police Go Wireless Remote

With a little vision and a great deal of budgetary and technological planning, Alexandria, Va., police surpassed 17,000 police departments nationwide with a mobile wireless computer system that arms police with technology for the 21st century.

The Alexandria Police Department is the first to give officers penpad computers that can wirelessly transmit and receive information via cellular digital packet data (CDPD) modems that don't need to be docked into their police cars. Until now, officers had to dock their workstations into dashboard-mounted units in order to transmit or receive information.

This new system frees the officers to send and receive vital information about witnesses and suspects from wherever they are-in their cars, at accident scenes or even while interviewing witnesses at their kitchen tables. Incorporating CDPD modems and customized battery operation, the pen-based computers perform license tag checks with the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles and can send detailed information about an accident or a suspect to police headquarters or even to national crime databases.

While most large, metropolitan police departments now have portable computing available to at least a portion of their police force, the Alexandria Police Department's implementation is considered a cut above the rest because of its mobility and flexibility. "And that was designed in from the start," said Tom Steele, commander of automated systems for the Alexandria Police.

Alexandria's Requirements

That was in 1991. Back then, the police department decided it needed mobile wireless computing technology that officers could use anywhere-whether they were in their cars, in a store during a stakeout, at a community meeting or even at their desks at police headquarters. The technology required included a portable PC with a large storage capacity, enough memory for a graphical user interface, a wireless communications technology and the ability to address future needs, such as FBI requirements to transmit images as well as data.

A separate initiative, the National Crime Information Center 2000 (NCIC 2000), is being designed by the FBI to replace the current computer system servicing all law enforcement agencies nationwide. The Alexandria Police wanted to be sure their new system would comply with, and be able to link to, the FBI system.

"It took a real sense of vision for the Alexandria Police to develop a plan that linked to NCIC and didn't paint them into a corner with proprietary technology. Now they can add new technologies as needed," said Bob Nelson, vice president of UCS Inc., a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., software developer and integrator for Microsoft Corp.

The Mobile Computers

Now 30 police cars are equipped with Fujitsu Personal Systems Inc. Stylistic 1000 pen-based notebook computers weighing 3.5 pounds, with 16M of RAM, a 380M hard drive and a keyboard for applications that require one. The mobile computers run Windows 95 and are linked via Motorola Inc. Personal Messenger 100C (PM100C) CDPD modems to a desktop-based server, a Unisys Corp. P120 Pentium-based server running Windows NT.

The Software

UCS was the police department's primary partner in developing the new systems, although a number of suppliers were involved, including Fujitsu for penpad PCs, Motorola for CDPD modems, Bell Atlantic for CDPD transmission services, Unisys for the server and Microsoft for the operating systems and database software.

UCS installed all the software on the mobile and the server systems. The full suite of applications includes electronic mail via Microsoft Exchange Server and database management via SQL Server, Oracle7 and Policeworks, a specialized suite for officers that assists in creating reports and gathering accident and offense information.

The Server

The Unisys P120 server hardware incorporates law enforcement communications switching software that processes messages from a variety of systems and interfaces to systems of varying types. "Unisys has been in the message-switching business in state governments for a long time," said Steve Hall, program solutions manager for the Justice and Public Safety Practice for Unisys, Blue Bell, Pa.

Via the software switch, which runs under Oracle7 on Windows NT, the server will accept a message from a Fujitsu penpad computer and reformat the message to transmit it to a server of another type. "This is what enables the Alexandria Police to send information on license tags to the Virginia State Police computer and to the NCIC to check records," Hall said.

The Wireless Connection

While other police departments use wireless technology in their police cars, Alexandria is the first to use CDPD modems and antennas that enable officers to continue to transmit and receive information when they remove the systems from the police cars, said David Andersen, director of advanced technology for the Washington/Baltimore region of Bell Atlantic. Not only does this increase flexibility and mobility but also officer safety, Andersen said, because officers can key in information without worrying about being overheard talking to a radio dispatcher by potential suspects or witnesses.

A PM100C CDPD modem fits on a typical card that slides into the penpad PC; along with an antenna, it is used for transmission. "For the Alexandria Police Department, we customized the modem by modifying it to draw power from the battery in the Fujitsu penpad computer, which gets recharged by the police car's battery when docked on the dashboard," Andersen said.

That lightens an officer's load by not having to carry batteries for the modem, in addition to the computer. Andersen said Motorola is redesigning its modem now to allow this option for other users.

The CDPD market has developed more slowly than anyone predicted, but Andersen said the advantages of CDPD are starting to make it a promising alternative to other wireless radio technologies. Its rapid 19.2 kilobit/sec transmission rate, reliability via the use of TCP/IP protocols, security through authentication and message encryption, and its cost-effectiveness compared with other wireless solutions give it an edge, he said.

"For a flat rate that's well under $100 per month, per modem, the Alexandria Police can transmit as much data as they want," he said. Meanwhile, Steele said, other alternatives, such as a new radio tower, would have required major capital funding.

Funding the Project

The cost of the project, including penpad computers in 30 cars, along with planning and development costs, has added up to $425,000, Steele said. But the tab has been paid so far without federal funds. Instead, the department has used profits from seized assets and a special grant program, called Cops More, which is funded by the Justice Department to reduce police paperwork.

By next February, 70 cars will have the new systems. And Steele said the cost of adding the additional systems will be $300,000. That will be paid for by more grant money, in addition to city funds. Steele estimated that it will cost about $1,700 per unit to maintain the systems once they are installed.

And he maintained that it's Chief Charles E. Samarra's goal to someday issue each of Alexandria's 265 officers a computer, along with a revolver and a radio. "It's only by the use of technology that we will be able to maintain our commitment to preserving the peace in the future. It's not a matter of more cops on the street but better-equipped ones," Steele said.

Barbara DePompa is a free-lance writer based in Germantown, Md.

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