Feds describe how wireless helps public safety officials

Feds describe how wireless helps public safety officials

By Patricia Daukantas

GCN Staff


JULY 24—Although public-safety workers are increasingly using up-to-date devices, they are still hampered by low bandwidth, spotty access and fragile hardware, federal officials said at yesterday's Technology Excellence in Government seminar.

Not only do cellular phone companies need to improve their geographic coverage, but they should also provide priority access to public-safety workers, said Chris Lewis, a telecommunications specialist with the Interior Department's IRM Office. In the rare cases when disaster specialists are called to an area where the cellular systems are still working, they often can't get through to their home offices because the systems are overloaded.

Lewis works closely with the National Interagency Fire Center, through which the Interior and Agriculture departments collaborate to assist state and local firefighters in battling large forest blazes.

Noting that firefighters often drop or bump their traditional two-way radio units, Lewis said of his own handheld computer, 'I'd like to be able to drop this thing five feet and pick it up and be able to use it.'

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.

Because the Nextel phones provide text messaging, the Park Police have been able to eliminate about 300 pagers, Datcher said. But officers still need to carry traditional two-way radios to communicate from so-called dead spots in cellular coverage.

The Army Corps of Engineers' first-response fly-away kits, used by the first Army personnel to reach the scene of a natural disaster, currently have a wireless transmission rate of only 19.2 Kbps, said Wilbert Barrios, the corps' corporate information director. The corps is upgrading the kits to 56 Kbps, the nominal speed of dial-up modems.

The Public Safety Wireless Network, a joint effort of the Justice and Treasury departments, has developed a detailed roadmap that describes how police and fire officials can lay the groundwork for new wireless deployments, said Julio 'Rick' Murphy, the network's program manager within Treasury.

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