Safety workers test wearable computers

The National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center

The Justice Department is embarking on a project to determine how wearable computers can assist police and public safety workers in responding to emergencies, natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

Armed with a $700,000 grant, the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center, a National Institute of Justice program, is working with Xybernaut Corp. and Tactical Survey Group (TSG) Inc. to equip Charleston, S.C., police, firefighters and other emergency personnel with wearable PCs. The police and public safety workers will field-test and evaluate the computers through the end of the year.

The city was selected primarily because it's the East Coast's second busiest container shipping port and is home to several military installations, said William Nettles, deputy director of the technology center's Southeast division, which is located in Charleston.

But another major reason was that in the past six years, the city's public safety agencies have developed a mature, cooperative relationship with one another and with the federal government. "We had already overcome the number one challenge to technology and that's politics," said Coleman Knight, the center's project manager.

For first responders, having rugged wearable computers as part of their gear could mean easier and quicker access to a wide range of rich data — a chance to have information at their fingertips as they race toward a terrorist incident, natural disaster or other hazardous situation. The computer is a portable, brick-sized CPU with a 500 MHz processor that features a digital, flat-panel display with either an onscreen keyboard or wrist-worn keyboard.

"They could be doing their tactical plans as they go along by having ready access to the information," Nettles said. "And once they get there, one of the people in the initial response team going in would have, through the wearable computer, that information readily available to them."

Mike Binko, spokesman for Fairfax, Va.-based Xybernaut, said the computers can support Microsoft Corp. Windows or Linux and can have a wireless or hardline connection to the Internet. TSG's technology enables first responders to view images in a 360-degree manner, meaning they can look up, down, right and left. The screen, he said, is viewable even in direct sunlight and the devices can be attached through a customized belt or vest.

A wearable computer — capable of storing 10G, with memory externally expandable to 40G- can hold a vast amount of information, such as procedures and protocols, aerial photos and schematic diagrams of buildings, digitized street maps with data such as locations of utility lines, or video, Binko said.

"The key thing is aggregating data and making it available to different functional responders in an emergency situation," he said.

Wearable computers are being used in every branch of the armed forces, mostly by personnel who can access stored technical manuals for repairing tanks and helicopters instead of lugging around 100-page binders, he said. Several state and local government agencies — such as correctional facilities, public works and transportation departments — are also using the devices, although not as a rapid response mechanism, Binko said.

Knight said deploying wearable computers to first responders in the real world is "the next logical step."

An executive committee composed of representatives from 12 city public safety agencies — including an emergency preparedness division, fire departments, EMS, local police agencies, and aviation and port authority police — created a working group in which each agency appointed two representatives: one a tactical end user and the second an information technology specialist, Knight said.

In collaboration with the working group, the technology center established a list of possible locations where first responders may face critical situations. The list was whittled down to three, and the groups are now conducting full-blown tactical surveys.

Once the surveys are complete, Knight said, they'll run test scenarios at those sites with each participating agency receiving two wearable computers. "Then there's a disaster drill conducted on an annual basis in this area, and the final test will be to deploy all the systems for that tactical drill," he said.

He cautioned that the testing has only just begun, but Knight said no one doubts there's some value to using wearable computers.

"The question is where?" he asked. "Do I want my lead guy on the SWAT team to have a wearable computer or do I want a scene commander to have it? Do I want my EMS tech on the ground to have a wearable computer, is that valid? Or is it more valid for it to be on the scene supervisor? Is it valid to put a wearable computer along with bunker gear on a fireman going into a fire?"

How first responders adapt to the wearable computers, how the devices will fit into their uniforms and how they will be applied is yet to be determined.

"The whole purpose of the demonstration project is to show us what's good, what's bad, what's realistic and what's unrealistic in a piece of equipment," Knight said. "What you may find is there's a complete redesign of how we carry it or there may be a complete redesign of how the uniform is worn. It's going to depend on what the value is and how it works."

Nettles said the project will produce a public-source document for the National Institute of Justice with the "the good, bad and the ugly of the whole process" — including facts, figures, recommendations and conclusions — available to other federal, state and local agencies, developers and manufacturers.

He said Charleston's executive committee is excited about trying something new if it makes first responders' jobs better, safer and more efficient.

"These guys quite frankly have been ignored so long in the law enforcement field as far as technology development is concerned, you can bring just about anything in," Nettles said. "They're willing to try it whether they think it'll work or not."

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