Washington city tests wireless emergency net

"We were worried we were going to get all kinds of help desk calls, and we haven't," Toni Kramer said.

When an earthquake rocked Washington last year, users flooded the state's 800-MHz emergency radio frequency, jamming all communications.

Toni Cramer, CIO of Bellevue, Wash., said city officials then decided to offload some of their communications traffic onto a wireless data network. They got help from AT&T Wireless of Redmond, Wash.; Compaq Computer Corp.; InfoWave Software Inc. of Bellevue; and Sierra Wireless Inc. of Richmond, British Columbia. The companies are donating products and services in exchange for the city's promotion of the program.

Launched in April, the pilot wireless network will run for a year. Then the city will evaluate how it wants to continue, Cramer said.

100 pilot users

AT&T Wireless donated 12 months of airtime. Compaq donated 100 iPaq Pocket PC H3870 handheld computers. InfoWave donated its Wireless Business Engine server software that lets wireless users connect in the field. And Sierra Wireless gave AirCard 300 wireless network cards for the handhelds.

The city's 100 pilot users are trying out wireless e-mail and applications for building inspection, park management, work orders and transportation signals. The city is also setting up an emergency response database using Microsoft SQL Server.

Building inspectors send in their results wirelessly with the iPaq handhelds. Before the wireless network came up in April, the inspectors filled out paper forms that would pile up and sometimes take weeks to enter into a database.

"This has eliminated delays as well as manual processing," Cramer said.

No hogs here

The InfoWave software compresses and encrypts the wireless data "so it doesn't hog a lot of bandwidth," she said. The city "didn't have to tear everything apart and put it back together again. We were worried we were going to get all kinds of help desk calls, and we haven't."

Although it's too soon to quantify savings, the wireless network has reduced transportation costs, Cramer said. "Inspectors have had to make fewer trips and calls to the office," she said. "We're hoping that as data usage goes up, cell phone usage will drop."

The people using the handhelds like them a lot, Cramer added. "You don't often hear construction inspectors say something is lovely, but that's what they've been saying," she said. "They're so happy to get a new tool that works."

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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