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Utility’s Rocket speeds up command and control operations in Florida

Written by Tim Burke

Are you a speed freak? Whether it’s cars, sports or connectivity in computers, do you have a need for speed? The fastest teams are the winningest teams. In the tech world, speed is the thing all programs and systems are measured by.

Law enforcement isn’t any different; officers must rely on their fast decision-making abilities, work behind the wheel of fast cars,
and deal with speed factors in everything from ballistics to dispatching and also in communications support technologies. So when something comes along that is nicknamed “the rocket”, you know it is going to be all about fast delivery. We’re talking about speed here—and nothing but.

Palm Beach, Fla. Sheriff’s Office (PBSO)

John D’Andrea is the sergeant in charge of mobile computing at the Palm Beach, Fla., Sheriff’s Office (PBSO). He works with the technology that goes into PBSO cars. You might say he’s the cop version of an IT speed freak. His department has deployed this new product in its law enforcement vehicles to accelerate their command and control abilities.

“The Rocket, as it’s called,” Sergeant D’Andrea said recently, “allows us to transfer video wireless faster than any other method. Road patrol will be the primary users, but we do have several Rockets in our command trucks and specialty vehicles, so it can be used as hot spots for our deputies.”

Right now, PBSO owns 350 Rockets and has approximately 100 deployed. “We are planning on deploying approximately 1,000 within the next few months,” he added. The reason for the new technology is just plain burn-rubber quickness. Skip Kohl, CIO at PBSO and program manager, noted that, “The fast wireless upload of video is the biggest benefit; we are able to transfer gigs of video in just minutes instead of hours.” That’s called burner-speed. And it’s a big deal because it gets officers out on the beat right away instead of waiting for system updates. That’s vital for both big city departments and rural departments.

Today, everybody’s time is precious and resources are always tight. D’Andrea pointed out that the area of coverage in Palm Beach County, Fla., is bigger than the state of Rhode Island, “and we have more than 1.2 million people who we serve.” Their need for speed is more than apparent. But how did they get to this point, and who is making this happen for PBSO?

The Rocket™ is made by Tucker, Ga.-based Utility (formerly Utility Associates). It is a comprehensive mobile communications gateway providing first responder vehicles with on-board, secure dual Wi-Fi connectivity. It is part of a mobile resource management system for law enforcement.

Now you might be asking, what is mobile resource management? Well, according to the description on Utility’s Web site, it is the ability to maximize a mobile workforce by tracking, commanding and controlling mobile resources in real time. A complete mobile resource management solution allows a police department to see the field location and status of resources.

Also, it allows supervisors to more efficiently deploy those resources and improve workforce productivity and customer service. It helps police management gain insight on vehicle diagnostics and gets the right information to officers in the field, at the right time. For first responders, knowing that vehicles are equipped with secure, reliable and consistent Wi-Fi connectivity is a key factor in managing mobile assets and getting the job done. Patrol officers need real-time, dependable wireless communication—whether working in a big city or in a rural area where wireless service can be challenging. The product in use by PBSO can automatically switch between Wi-Fi and cellular networks, ensuring reliable, consistent high-speed connectivity and service.

More than a rugged Wi-Fi hot spot, Rocket also seamlessly interfaces with the latest generations of GPS, RFID and on-board diagnostic and navigation mobile applications. Kirby Ryan, general manager at Utility, provided a quick overview of how it all works. “The Rocket is a ruggedized mobile wireless communications router and GPS reporting appliance.

Using off-the-shelf USB data cards from any nationwide cellular carrier, the Rocket creates a secure, always-on Wi-Fi hotspot in the vehicle.” He said it has a second Wi-Fi radio that supports very high-speed uploads of video and other digital evidence data, so officers can upload their data quickly and get back on the road—an important feature we can all appreciate in this get-it-done-yesterday world of ours.

The Rocket’s future-proof design allows police departments to change cellular carriers or upgrade from 3G to 4G cellular data with just a key. No tools are required, and the police department does not have to buy a new vehicle router. He said that you simply swap out the USB data card the cellular carriers provide at no cost. “While easy to swap out,” Ryan continued, “the Rocket’s locking lid design and Rocket Locker protects the USB cellular data card from being damaged or stolen. It can be connected to the vehicle engine diagnostics port to report vehicle engine trouble codes and operating data.”

It is an active Wi-Fi RFID tag reader, so it can report what people and assets are in and around the police car. This product can be configured to use AES encryption and is MIL-STD 810F certified, making it secure and reliable. “The Rocket is connected to the vehicle’s 12v DC power supply, and unlike a laptop, it can’t be turned off,” Ryan said. “It powers up when the vehicle is started, and provides a Wi-Fi hotspot and reports data automatically, without requiring any log-on or other action from the officer. The thing ‘just works,’ allowing the police officer to focus on policing.”
 
Why is that so great, you ask? Because this solves the so-called “Million Dollar Parking Lot Problem” all departments face, and allows agencies to recapture the huge value of officers spending many hours a year sitting in the parking lot waiting for a slow data upload to complete, or going inside the building to upload video from a data card they took out of their videocam system. That’s a very expensive parking lot. You want to reduce that expense. The technology is fit for any location—in southern Texas in the summer and northern Maine in the winter. As Ryan pointed out, “One of our customers recommended we rename it ‘the Rock’ because it is so reliable.”

In addition to being rugged, it is easy to support and maintain. The Over-the-Air system updates with firmware and configuration changes—without having to touch the product itself. According to Ryan, this no-touch feature significantly reduces the annual total cost of ownership compared to other communications routers that have to be updated manually.

“Scheduling every vehicle to come in to make a change is a logistics nightmare,” said Ryan. “Updating fleet-wide security, fine-tuning GPS reporting, modifying Wi-Fi access, and so on, all with a few clicks and keystrokes, is an instant cost-saver.” Utility is a company that developed command and control software and a mobile wireless GPS appliance solution to help officers spend more time policing, and less time offloading data from videocams in police cars.

“Thousands of police cars are equipped with our solution,” Ryan indicated, “which provides real-time, secure communications and situational awareness for both officers and dispatch.”

But that’s not the only thing his company does for law enforcement. It makes the AVaiL Command and Control system, which is a powerful map viewer and data collector that provides law enforcement agencies with a clear, real-time operating picture. As Ryan explained: “Our Rocket mobile wireless GPS appliance is installed in each vehicle. Each one provides GPS and other data to the AVaiL server, which provides ‘right-now’ information about officer location overlayed on top of a detailed map.”

AVaiL’s single, comprehensive map-based view provides situational awareness for a complete command and control view of the police force operations. Officers and dispatchers have better, more complete information for making decisions and protecting officers.

How easy is installation? He said through the Rocket Locker mounting option, the Rocket, power timer and optional cell booster are all preinstalled in a single, tamper-proof case. Installation consists of bolting the Locker in a convenient location in the vehicle; connecting the ground, power and ignition wires; and installing one quadband antenna—dual Wi-Fi, cellular and GPS.
 
“We can provide customers who have a radio shop with a day or two of on-site, train-the-trainer installation training,” Ryan said, “so they can easily install the rest of their Rockets using our recommended procedure we develop for their unique vehicles. We can also recommend experienced, certified installers who can perform installations on a contract basis.”

As far as police officers needing training to run it, well, there is none. Ryan explained: “There is no training required for the Rocket because there is nothing the police officer has to do to make it work. It starts automatically when the vehicle is turned on.” He went on to indicate that, “Our Remote Configuration Management annual software subscription includes replacement hardware maintenance and unlimited 24/7 telephone support. If anything stops working—except caused by customer abuse of course—we replace it at no additional charge, for as many years as the customer subscribes to the plan.”

When talking about speed on the job, we know officers have to rely on timely information while on patrol. They want—and need—to be able to depend on a reliable system. This is true wherever you patrol.

“The beauty of the system,” Ryan pointed out, “is situational awareness. You can’t manage effectively if you don’t have accurate and current ‘Who’ and ‘Where’ information. Fast video upload has the biggest financial benefit to our police customers—making more effective use of limited resources. Our customers will tell you that fast, reliable connectivity and increased situational awareness are what the Rocket is all about.”

Who is using this speedy technology in today’s hyper-drive police and public safety world? Two of the firm’s largest first responder customers are the City of San Antonio Police and Fire departments, and the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office. Both departments have Rockets and software subscriptions installed in several hundred vehicles. “We have many other police, fire and EMS agency customers across the United States, and many utilities as well,” Ryan added.

The Rocket, he said, is designed, manufactured and supported right here in the United States, and his firm is committed to U.S.-based manufacturing. “Our technical support staff—all U.S. citizens—work in our metro-Atlanta headquarters. We are with our customers here in the USA for the long haul.” “

GPS, wireless broadband, in-car video, high-speed data upload, vehicle diagnostics reporting and RFID tag reporting from vehicles have become practical and cost effective in the past couple of years,” Ryan said. “Single purpose hardware and software are addressing these needs individually,” he continued. “However, only the Rocket provides a universal communications platform in a vehicle to meet all these needs, leveraging one cellular data card and one monthly cellular data plan.

“The cost savings from leveraging one monthly cellular data plan per vehicle rather than several per vehicle will quickly pay for the entire deployment.” According to Ryan, the hosted AVaiL service means that solutions are scalable in a matter of days. Ten, 100 and 1,000-plus vehicles are all easily displayed, managed and maintained.

“Our customers,” he said, “can start small and add vehicles until they have Rockets and AVaiL deployed across their entire fleet, with performance and reliability regardless of the number of vehicles and workstations across the enterprise.

“Our hosted AVaiL service provides a unique Mutual Aid reporting capability,” he added. “AVaiL subscribers can share information and display vehicles from other AVaiL subscribers on their AVaiL map. This Mutual Aid capability allows more effective coordination and management of vehicles from multiple organizations responding to natural disasters and homeland security events.”

In an equation where speed equals dependability, this solution is really making officer efficiency add up. But this reporter asked Sergeant D’Andrea and his boss, CIO Kohl, how the deputies in the cars were taking to the new fast service. “Once they understand what it does and see the performance improve over the average air card, they like it very much,” D’Andrea and Kohl both indicated. “At the beginning, we had problems with our own setups and it was a tough sell, but now that we know how to set it up, we don’t get the complaints.”

D’Andrea went on to share how it is working at PBSO. “We are always monitoring its performance, as does Utility. They are always working to improve the performance. Right now, [Kohl] and I oversee it, but I believe our supervisors will take over once we fully deploy.”

D’Andrea summed up the souped-up Rocket: “We love the system and are very pleased with how Utility drops everything to help us improve the way we transfer video.” To all you IT speed freaks out there who love a jolt of velocity in everything you do, especially computers and systems in police cars: tune in, amp up, and hitch a ride on this rocket!

Timothy R. Burke is a freelance writer, editor, graphic designer and photographer and can be reached at trb4320@yahoo.com. Photos courtesy of Utility.

Published in Public Safety IT, Nov/Dec 2010

Rating : 10.0


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