Police test smartphones over cellular for undercover use during Boston Marathon

BeOn system from Harris Corp. lets public safety networks talk to cellular networks

During April's Boston Marathon, police in Brookline, Mass., piloted a wireless system that let undercover police and supervisors to use ordinary iPhones and Android devices to communicate with rugged Land Mobile Radios over LTE and other commercial cellular networks.

Brookline is adjacent to Boston and includes a portion of the marathon along Beacon Street near the end of the 26.2 mile course.

After the 2013 bombings near the marathon finish line, security for 2014 was "incredibly high, like I've never seen before," said Officer Scott Wilder, director of technology and communications for the 145-member Brookline Police Department.

During the race, Wilder and more than 25 police officers piloted the BeOn application from Harris Corp. BeOn is designed to let fire, police and other public safety workers use commercially-available phones like the iPhone to communicate securely with widely-used P25 public safety radio systems, according to David Simon, a product manager at Harris.

With P25 systems, emergency personnel usually carry heavy-duty walkie-talkie-like mobile gear that works within a dedicated wireless network channel, such as that for a city's fire or police department.

"You can take your cell phone anywhere in the world to talk to your P25 system," Simon said in an interview. "If you are working undercover, it looks like you are talking on your cell phone just like other people around you in a crowd."

Police chiefs and other supervisors can use personal cell phones to interoperate with a department's secure system. P25 systems could also be valuable for workers who don't require ruggedized radios, such as animal control officers or medics.

BeOn has already been deployed in various locations around the U.S., including at other sporting events and along east coast CSX rail lines where workers had previously piggybacked off various third party radio systems, Simon said.

BeOn includes a client application on each phone and on a centralized server.

Using Voice-over-IP allows voice communications. Since BeOn was introduced in 2012, Harris has added situational awareness capabilities through Google Maps, so that a cell phone user or an administrator from centralized Windows PC can view where the BeOn users are located on a map on the display.

Wilder declared BeOn a "home run" for situations involving crowds and during time that heightened security is needed. He plans to work with other jurisdictions in the Boston area to seek federal funds to purchase BeOn system for future marathons and other tight-security events.

The entry level cost of a BeOn system for licensing a central server costs $100,000, Simon said.

"Everybody is carrying a smartphone these days and so everyone on the force asks 'Why can't I have a police radio device on my smartphone?'" Wilder said.

Wilder and Simon both said that BeOn would never replace rugged police and fire radios that are carried into emergency scenes where heat, water and shocks would destroy a commercial smartphone. Rugged emergency radios "are going to continue to be the norm," Wilder predicted.

Since virtually all police and fire radios in the U.S. are supplied or supported by Motorola Solutions, Wilder said his testing showed that BeOn would still work with the Motorola gear.

For future uses, Wilder said BeOn could be expanded to allow smartphone users that have loaded the app to take crime scene photos or victim and witness video statements to pass through the emergency network. "Of course, we'd have to make sure we set up policy procedures and evidentiary rules," he added.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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