Emergency services network is a win-win

Public safety officials are focused on getting broadband wireless communications into the hands of first responders. But once police, fire and emergency response officers have this capability, what can they do with it?

That's where an innovative Web-based application developed for the Washington DC area is filling the gap.

The Capital Wireless Integrated Network (CapWIN) is a partnership between Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Its goal is to create an interoperable data and information sharing network for all the first responders in the region, including local, state and federal officials.

CapWIN has 1,700 users from 43 government agencies including the Maryland State Police, the Virginia State Police, the District of Columbia Police Department and the US Park Service.

"We're the first of its kind in the country where multiple agencies across multiple jurisdictions can communicate in a single application to provide data, images and conferencing capability," says Bill Henry, director of field operations for CapWIN.

The University of Maryland began developing CapWIN before September 11, 2001, but Congress didn't allocate funds until after the Pentagon was attacked.

CapWIN was started in 1998 after an incident involving a suicide jumper on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River demonstrated the region's need for an open data network for first responders. Part of the bridge is in Maryland, part is in Virginia and part is in Washington DC Police from all of the neighboring jurisdictions were at the scene, but they couldn't talk to each other because they used different types of radios. The incident tied up traffic for four hours, causing back-ups in both directions of I-95.

"The communications infrastructure was such that they had to send runners back and forth to carry messages to the different participants," says Bill Henry, director of field operations for CapWIN. "The complaints they had that day about interoperability led to CapWIN."

The Department of Transportation funded a pilot project for CapWIN, which was developed from 1999 to 2001. In late 2001, Congress allocated US$20 million to rollout a full-fledged system across the region.

Now in its second version, CapWIN offers secure instant messaging and group chat. Users create a chat room for each incident, and the software provides a record of what is happening for managing the response. The software also supports the sharing of images including maps and photos for users that have enough bandwidth.

CapWIN runs on laptops, but an abridged version is available for handheld devices. The application is carrier agnostic, so that individual users can access it regardless of their wireless service provider. CapWIN is free to government agencies.

"The CapWIN strength is that it provides connectivity to first responders in the field and it provides information from the field to the command center," Henry says. "In a major catastrophic event, CapWIN would be used as one of the main field communications links and a secondary channel if the commercial wireless or radio systems were down."

The Maryland State Police began using CapWIN in 2004 as part of a three-year, $US7.5 million initiative to automate its squad cars. The agency has purchased 1000 laptops, which are being installing in patrol vehicles along with CapWIN, upgraded radios, cameras and radar systems. --- PB ---

CapWIN comes in handy for calling roll at the beginning of shifts as well as a back-up for radios when connectivity goes down, says Capt. Terry Custer, commander of the IT division of the Maryland State Police.

"We have some problems with connectivity in Western Maryland. We hit some dead spots, which were giving our troops concerns. With CapWIN, we're finding that when our troopers can't contact the barracks with police radio, they can instead use CapWIN," Custer says.

Troopers also run record checks on licence plates with CapWIN. Maryland State troopers have already run more than 80,000 record checks including drivers' licences, warrants and vehicle registrations this year using CapWIN.

"We have several troopers that run more than 100 record checks per month," Custer says. "The normal response is within 10 seconds. So before we approach a car, we know if there's an outstanding warrant for the owner."

What Maryland State Police like best is that they can use CapWIN to communicate with police, fire, emergency and transportation officials across the state in response to incidents.

For example, Maryland State Police in July used CapWIN to help apprehend the driver in a carjacking incident in Cumberland, Md. "The Cumberland City Police started the pursuit. They put it on CapWIN, and our troopers helped make the apprehension," Custer says.

CapWIN complements other communications systems used by first responders in the Washington DC. area. For example, police and fire departments in the region have standardized on 800 MHz radios to ensure interoperability. Sometimes communications over the radios has proven less reliable than the data provided by CapWIN.

For example, in March 2006 a barge struck the Severn River Bridge near Annapolis, Md. The initial radio reports led law enforcement and transportation officials to believe the accident had happened at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. However, the CapWIN incident management system verified for the responding officials that the accident had happened at the Severn River Bridge instead.

"At first, law enforcement and transportation officials that were working that issue were not anywhere near where they needed to be. Somebody looked at the CapWIN incident management system and realized it was the Severn River Bridge," says Roddy Moscoso, communications manager for CapWIN. Incidents like these "help buttress the argument for a significant role for data in emergency response."

In the future, CapWIN expects to transmit more photos, images and streaming video. Since July, the Virginia State Police has been using CapWIN to send out criminal database photos in response to queries from law enforcement officials in the field.

"In Maryland, we had an incident where a large World War II ordnance was found by a construction crew," Moscoso says. "The incident was in close proximity to a school. A CapWIN user in the field logged into a mapping application and put in push pins on a map and attached that map to the incident report that he created in the field. With this image, everyone could instantly identify where the ordnance was located."

Among the users of CapWIN's image and data transmission is the US Park Police, which has 23 mobile computers that are equipped with CapWIN. Officials use these systems for law enforcement queries and managing special events such as the dedication of the World War II Memorial and the annual Fourth of July celebration.

"The Park Police will create an event and broadcast it out to all the participating agencies," says Lt. David Mulholland, Commander for Information Technology and Communications for the US Park Police. "We use CapWIN to communicate not only with law enforcement, fire or emergency services but also with the transportation people. We need to bring them in when we're doing the countdown to the fireworks and we have to evacuate the Mall due to bad weather. We're working towards bringing in non-traditional users like public utilities and the Red Cross."

Mulholland says CapWIN works best for long-term incidents where it's necessary to set up a command center and to maintain a time-stamped log of what's happening during the incident. "In reality, if first responders are tasked with a serious injury or a hazardous materials problem, you don't want them typing," he says. "You want them out checking pulses."

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