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Interoperability between public safety agencies and keeping the community informed: a new approach

Written by Tom Steele

The purpose of this article is to discuss the current state-of-the-art of text messaging opportunities for public safety agencies. Systems covered will include Twitter, Facebook and NIXLE. The scope will include the benefits and costs of each type of system to include reliability, speed, ease of operation and security of the system. The intended audience is public safety and private security officials and those with an interest in the new wave of communication that is sweeping society. We will cover a brief history of police communication along with a description of the three systems.

History of Police Communication

The issue of communication has been around since the advent of policing. Methods such as the “hue and cry,” police whistles and even thumping police batons on the ground have been used throughout our history as a means and method of communication. In the 1800s a system of lights was implemented in some urban areas. These lights were mounted on certain buildings and were usually red in color. When activated, officers on patrol would know to call the station to receive their call for service.

In Chicago, radio station WGN would interrupt their regular AM radio entertainment to broadcast messages from Headquarters to police vehicles that had an AM radio when the police had a call, according to State and Local Law Enforcement Wireless Comxmunications and Interoperability: A Quantitative Analysis, A Final Summary Report Presented to the National Institute of Justice, January 1998 NCJ 168961.

The advent of the “call box” certainly improved our ability to communicate—by opening a call box with an issued key, lifting the telephone receiver and having it directly ring at a designated location, usually a station house, we were able to get messages across. In-car radios became available in the 1930s and ’40s but were only one-way communication at first. The officer could receive the call but not reply with information. The 1960s and 1970s saw improvement with the upgrade from HF to VHF and UHF frequencies and portable radios that could be carried away from the police car. The 1970s also saw the beginning use of computers in policing, especially for Records Management Systems (RMS) and Computer Assisted Dispatch (CAD).

The 1980s saw the beginning use of laptop computers in the car with many templates used for reports with a connection to the department’s CAD and RMS. The 1990s saw the use of cellular communications explode with many officers now using them for voice and text, expanding the safety of both officers and the community while making the communications more secure from prying “ears.” With the turn of the century we see text messaging overtaking cellular calls as a means of personal communications. But with all of the technology development and purchase, where are we today in terms of communicating with the public as well as each other?

On one hand, it has been less than 80 years since the first police radio was installed in a police car and we have advanced to mobile computing systems (MCS) that enable silent dispatching. On the other hand, the number one issue highlighted by first responders at a disaster is the lack of interoperability. Interoperability is the ability of different agencies to communicate across jurisdictions with each other. And this lack of interoperability does not consider our ability to communicate effectively with the public.

A recent report by the National Institute of Justice cites the major issues of today. For instance, “High-profile incidents such as the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Center in Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center in New York City have brought attention to the need for improved communications interoperability. Natural disasters such as tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes and wild fires, particularly when they hit heavily populated areas, require a coordinated response from numerous public safety and public service organizations. The same is true of disasters such as plane crashes, train derailments and power outages. Even more routine situations, such as fairs, sports events, local festivals, visiting dignitaries, criminal or drug-related investigations, car accidents and fires require coordination between and across agencies. Such coordination requires planning, cooperation and effective communications.”

Compounding the need for effective communication between first responders is the need for the same ability to communicate effectively with the public. First responders and government agencies have traditionally relied on the press and media to keep the public and other stakeholders informed. As Gerald Barton points out in his book Now Is Too Late: The rules have changed. Whereas the old rule was “Let the media tell your story,” the new rule is “Tell it yourself.” As we know, we all live in a world of instant news 24 hours per day, seven days per week. The current public expects and demands that they be told what is happening where and to whom. No longer is the daily newspaper or the details at the 11 p.m. newscast sufficient.

Barton goes on to advocate a new approach. “There are three critical elements of a communication response to a public issue or newsworthy incident: people, policies and technology. Interdependent and intertwining, each element needs to be effective and aimed at the single objective of protecting or building the organization’s public trust through accurate, timely information.”

What technologies exist today that are affordable in the current recessionary environment that will help satisfy the need for interoperability between public safety agencies while meeting the public demand for timely, near instant notifications? There are three opportunities that many departments are exploring and deploying: Twitter, Facebook and NIXLE. All three technologies have the power to connect people within agencies, between agencies and between the agencies and their communities. In addition, all three are available at no cost. But this is where the commonalities stop as all three have differing liabilities and benefits to the user.

Twitter™

Twitter™ is a privately funded startup with offices in San Francisco, Calif. Started as a side project in March of 2006, Twitter has grown into a real-time short messaging service that works over multiple networks and devices. Twitter asks one question, “What are you doing?” Answers must be under 140 characters in length and can be sent via mobile texting, instant message or the Web. Twitter’s core technology is a device-agnostic message routing system with rudimentary social networking features. By accepting messages from SMS, Web, mobile Web, instant message or from third party API projects, Twitter makes it easy for poeple to stay connected. Twitter has millions of subscribers throughout the world. “Tweets” that are sent go to the entire community subscribing to the sending account. Twitter does not have a geotargeting feature that would permit the sender to select a target radius for the message.

The benefits that Twitter offers include that it is fast and robust, easy to use, and free to the user and subscriber. The major liabilities that Twitter has are the uncertainty of reliability and lack of security. For example, Scott Gilbertson posted an article entitled “Twitter Accountability: Spoof Caller ID To Take Over Any Account on Webmonkey” on April 11, 2007. In his article, step-by-step instructions are posted to show how easy it is for anyone to take over a Twitter account and begin posting messages in their name. On another occasion, the City of Austin Police Department had an imposter set up an “Austin PD” account that gained 450 followers. Then President-Elect Barack Obama’s social networking account was hacked. The same thing happened to pop singer Britney Spears, CNN anchor Rick Sanchez and actor Ewan McGregor.

Facebook

Similarly, Facebook is a social networking service that boasts more than 300 million subscribers. Founded in 2004, it provides families and friends with a method to find each other and stay connected internationally. Like Twitter, there is no cost to use this application. Facebook does not have a geotargeting feature, thus messages are sent to the entire subscriber community for the sender’s account. Also like Twitter, Facebook is fraught with vulnerabilities. To learn more simply Google “Facebook vulnerabilities” and read a variety of stories on point along with instructions on to how to “hack” a Facebook account.

NIXLE

Looking at NIXLE in contrast to Twitter and Facebook, NIXLE is a no-cost community alert tool that is secured through the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (NLETS). NIXLE’s Municipal Wire is the first standardized, secure and certified communication platform for local police departments, municipalities and their agencies to communicate important, neighborhood-level information to the residents of their communities. NIXLE’s Municipal Wire is available at no cost to agencies and uses the same compelling model as social applications like Twitter and Facebook, while adding the security that is critical to ensure information received by users is trusted and accurate.

Residents receive all information immediately by text message, e-mail and Web. The NIXLE SMS distribution network can reach 100,000 users in approximately three minutes, while many other emergency messaging and social messaging networks can take up to 100 times as long. In addition, the NIXLE system contains no single points of failure and is built for 99.999 percent availability with the ability to maintain full functionality even in the event of the loss of an entire datacenter. NIXLE also has a geotargeting feature that allows the user to select a radius range of a single point address or up to 25 miles for a geotargeted message. The user also has the option to send the message to the entire community of his subscribers.

NIXLE’s largest deployment to date was at the G-20 Conference that the City of Pittsburgh hosted in 2009. The Pittsburgh Police Department grew from 900 officers to more than 5,700 officers when supporting law enforcement agencies came to assist with planned demonstrations. Radio broadcasts alone would not have been enough, said Lt. Charles Rodriguez. “You might have frequencies and radios that can’t talk to each other,” Rodriguez stated. “A lot of agencies coming from out of town might not have our frequency. For example, Miami-Dade wouldn’t need Pittsburgh police on their radio normally, so how do you communicate with those people? NIXLE made it very easy because all you have to do is add their number to the distribution list.” An article found on the Trib Total Review’s Web site at www.pittsburghlive.com /x/pittsburghtrib/news/pittsburgh/s_647562.html offers more on the topic.

As the illustrations in this article show, the Pittsburgh Police used the NIXLE secure Organizational Text Messaging feature to keep their organizational structure informed of events.

Comparison Analysis

Twitter and Facebook certainly offer many benefits. These social networking platforms have connected families and enabled friends to stay connected in a real-time setting. Twitter has also played an important role in democratic initiatives such as that in the former Soviet Georgia and the invasion by Russian Troops. This incident highlighted the vulnerability of the system: Twitter crashed for several days when suspected hackers attacked the Georgian citizen who helped lead the dissidents. Thus the reliability of Twitter as a means of emergency alerts to communities is less than optimal. To be blunt, Twitter and Facebook are easy to hack and disrupt.

NIXLE provides secure interoperability between first responders as well as secure authenticated alerts to the community. Since being launched in February 2009, NIXLE has been adopted by more than 3,000 public safety agencies in 49 States. Many agencies are using both the community alerts as well as the secure organizational text messaging service. Missing children and vulnerable adults have been located through the use of NIXLE. Patrol Officers can use their cell phone cameras to take a “picture of a picture” and send out a critical missing person alert to subscribers that include a photo. Suspect photos can also be sent with a physical description and possible reward information through Crime Solvers or other reward programs. The geotargeting feature allows the sender to send relevant information to a neighborhood instead of an entire community, thereby preventing what some would call information overload or compassion fatigue.

To be sure, NIXLE is not a social networking application like Twitter and Facebook. Only NIXLE provides first responders and government agencies the secure, fast, interoperability solution that our profession needs in today’s world of instant communication.

G. Thomas Steele has been associated with public safety for over 40 years as a CIO at the local, county, state and federal levels of law enforcement. He recently retired as CIO for the Delaware Department of Public Safety and Homeland Security. Over his career he consulted and taught all aspects of information technology and communications for the IACP, DOJ and is the co-founder of the IACP LEIM. He can be reached at mspcio@aol.com. 

David B. Mitchell has 38 years of law enforcement experience. He has served as Chief of Police in Prince George's County, Md., Superintendent of the Maryland State Police, and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security for Delaware. He currently is an Adjunt Professor at Johns Hopkins University, Division of Public Safety Leadership where he teaches Crisis Communications and Management. He is also a consultant to NIXLE. He holds a Bachelor's Masters (Public Policy) and Juris Doctor degrees from the University of Maryland.   

Published in Public Safety IT, May/Jun 2010

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