Secure modems help city remotely manage 911 system

The police department in Fairfax, Va., had a problem with old technology. In order to upgrade the city’s 911 system, it faced a decision on whether to shut down its emergency call facilities for four days and move its servers to another facility. 

Instead of moving a vital service offline for an unacceptable period of time, the department came up with the innovative solution of running its 911 system across a wireless network provided by the secure modems in its new laptop computers. 

The city recently upgraded the laptops as part of an effort to replace old equipment in the department, said Fairfax Deputy Police Chief Maj. Carl Pardiny. Intended to support officers in their patrol cars, the old laptops were five years old and had seen considerable wear and tear. 

In August, 2010, Pardiny, who was then in charge of the department’s IT division, upgraded the laptops and equipped them with Verizon 4G LTE modems using funds provided from a small grant. The modems allow officers to securely access state and federal law enforcement databases from their vehicles more rapidly than the old equipment, he said. 

Calls to the City of Fairfax’s 911 center are routed through the larger Fairfax County center. When the city recently had to upgrade the 911 system in its emergency communications center, it had the option of going offline for several days. Using the county’s network as a backup would require hours of complex system programming. 

Instead, the department routed all of its 911 and non-emergency calls to the Fairfax County McConnell Public Safety and Transportation Operations Center, where the city police department had placed several call takers. The call takers were equipped with the new upgraded laptops and modems, which allowed them to enter data and transmit it back to the city’s computer-aided dispatch system. 

The process worked seamlessly. “Nobody knew that we had call takers off-site and dispatchers on-site,” Pardiny said. In fact, the wireless connectivity was so good that the dispatchers could read what the call takers were typing in real time and react to it. In one case, this allowed the city’s police to react to a kidnapping case and arrest the suspect within minutes of the call, he said. 

The new upgrades have laid the foundation for future improvements. The new secure 4G LTE modems will allow officers to load traffic data, such as accident reports and tickets, directly into state and local databases. The upgrades to the 911 system will allow the city to quickly move to a completely digital system that will be able to accept e-mail as well as text messages, said Fairfax Police Lt. Matt Duckett. 


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