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Public-safety officials create wireless wish lists

Lt. Anthony R. Datcher depends on wireless contact, but he still has to carry a two-way radio to communicate in cellular dead spots.

Public-safety workers depend on wireless devices despite their low bandwidth, spotty access and fragility.

Agencies are always looking for ways to improve wireless services, several federal users said last month at a GCN Technology Excellence in Government seminar in Washington.

Nearly half the 400-officer Park Police force now carries digital phones from Nextel Communications Inc. of Reston, Va., said Lt. Anthony R. Datcher, commander of the police force's communications section.

The cell phones let officers have private conversations, as opposed to talking over public radio frequencies, accessible to everyone with a scanner.

Each Park Police phone gets 600 minutes of airtime per month for about $49, Datcher said. The force saved some money by eliminating about 300 pagers made redundant by the phones' text-messaging capability.

But officers still have to carry two-way radios to communicate from dead spots in cellular coverage, Datcher said. Dead spots exist even in urban areas because of community opposition to phone-transmitter towers.

Cellular telephone companies should improve their geographic coverage and give priority access to public-safety workers, said Chris Lewis, a telecommunications specialist with the Interior Department's IRM Office.

Lewis said a representative of a cellular carrier told him that the company covers 90 percent of the U.S. population, but that doesn't mean 90 percent of the land area. Most areas in which federal workers assist with forest fires have no cellular or wireless coverage.

So close, yet so far

In the rare cases when disaster specialists are called to an area where cellular service is still working, they often can't get through to their offices because the systems are overloaded, Lewis said.
Although some cellular providers have talked about giving priority access to public-safety workers, Lewis said he doesn't know of one that does.

Lewis works closely with the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), through which the Interior and Agriculture departments work with state and local firefighters in battling large forest blazes. The center also has an agreement with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to provide communications in the event of a nuclear power plant
accident.

NIFC handles only 3 percent of U.S. forest fires, but these are the largest 4,000 blazes per year, Lewis said.

Noting that firefighters often bump or drop their two-way radio units, Lewis said that public-safety workers need rugged handheld devices. 'I'd like to be able to drop this thing five feet and pick it up and use it,' he said, holding up his handheld computer.
The Army Corps of Engineers uses wireless technology at four levels of response to natural disasters, said Wilbert Berrios, the corps' corporate information director.

When the Federal Emergency Management Agency asks the Corps of Engineers to assist, there's usually no communications infrastructure left in the disaster area, Berrios said. 'You don't even have a newspaper,' he said.

Yet the corps must access mission-critical applications on its regular networks, Berrios said. The first responders take a fly-away kit'a ruggedized case containing a notebook computer, two VHF radios, a satellite phone, a digital camera and a Global Positioning System receiver.

The original kits had a transmission speed of only 19.2 Kbps, but the corps is upgrading them to 56 Kbps, the nominal speed of a dial-up modem, Berrios said.

Special options

Two years ago, the corps built six rapid-response vehicles, each of which can generate its own electrical power and provide air-conditioned space for seven staff members, Berrios said. Each vehicle comes with a cell phone, three types of radios and a satellite dish.

The corps has supplemented the vehicles with two containerized tactical operations centers. Each set of shipping containers holds, among other things, 10 notebook computers, a network hub and a wireless access port.

The containerized centers come with wireless LANs because there's 'no time to string wires out in the middle of nowhere,' Berrios said.
For the largest disasters, the corps has two deployable tactical operations centers. The four vehicles in each center share a full-fledged network that can upload to a satellite at 512 Kbps and download at 728 Kbps, Berrios said.

Julio 'Rick' Murphy, the Treasury Department's program manager for the Public Safety Wireless Network, said the federally funded program develops standards for interoperability among federal, state and local public-safety departments.

'No man, woman or child should ever lose their life because public-safety officials can't talk to one another,' Murphy said.

PSWN, a joint project of the Treasury and Justice departments, has published several booklets and a large technology chart outlining the steps that agencies should take in deploying wireless systems.

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