The Memphis Police Department (MPD), which serves a population of 670,000 with a force of nearly 2,200 commissioned officers, deployed 1,200 REDFLY Mobile Companions to its mobile officers.
According to Officer Robert Dean, the department’s wireless technology manager, the officers took to the new technology faster than they usually do.
“When they heard that they were going to carry another piece of equipment, they weren’t happy at first,” Dean recalled. “But as soon as they started using it, we got a lot of positive feedback about how it makes their jobs easier.”
New technology isn’t always expensive or flashy, and sometimes it isn’t even completely new. Instead, some new tech functions as an extension of a system already in place, working with that existing technology to make it more useful. That’s the role of the REDFLY at the MPD, working in tandem with smartphones.
Before the introduction of REDFLY to the MPD, mobile officers all carried a Windows Mobile smartphone by Verizon, the XV 6700. The department received the smartphones themselves for no charge, and pays Verizon a little less than $40 a month for the data service associated with each unit. The XV 6700s were an improvement over the older way of taking notes and typing up reports back at the station. By using smartphones, officers could key in information, especially reports, from any location, and they could use the device’s monitor to access information remotely, such as the MPD or other databases.
Generally speaking, the MPD officers find smartphones useful. In particular, the way the devices allowed them to file relatively routine reports by accessing the Watson Field Reporting Suite. But size is important. Smartphones have physical limits—namely their two-inch monitors and small slide-out QWERTY keyboards. On a monitor that small, it’s hard to display complex graphics or other information in a way in which can be readily grasped by the human eye than it is on a more standard-sized computer monitor.
As for the keyboard, working with such small keys slows down input, and increases mistakes, especially in more complicated reports. Reports filed using a smartphone keyboard were prone to simple typos. Even worse, the diminutive keyboard unconsciously encouraged officers to make shorter reports whose narratives weren’t always as detailed as necessary.
Enter the REDFLY from Celio Corp.
Measuring 1 x 6 x 9 inches, it weighs approximately two pounds, and looks something like a mini-netbook, though it actually functions as a terminal. It links to a smartphone using a USB cable or wireless Bluetooth connection. It also has a VGA output port. Once connected to a smartphone, the REDFLY serves as a conduit to the smartphone, doing what the smartphone does—but with a larger, easier-to-use interface.
Critically, the REDFLY is large enough to accommodate an eight-inch monitor. That allows for an 800 x 480 pixel resolution, which improves the clarity of the displayed information: e-mail, attachments, Web sites, graphics and images of various kinds. That’s always a good thing, but especially when an officer needs to get a quick look at a mug shot, for example. “In Tennessee, we can pull up drivers license photos,” Dean noted. “They’re small pictures in the best of circumstances, and the smartphone screen made it hard to see enough details.”
REDFLY’s enhanced monitor is likewise useful when the MPD accesses public and private video surveillance cameras by streaming their feeds to the department. A camera feed can be sent to officers’ smartphones as they are responding to a call, to give them a better idea of what’s going on. A bigger monitor in this instance is clearly a better monitor, and the REDFLY provides one.
The other main difference is that the REDFLY offers a considerably larger QWERTY keyboard than a smartphone, one that’s roughly three-quarters the size of a standard laptop keyboard. “You can get only so good at using your thumbs to enter information, as you have to with a smartphone,” Brad Warnock, vice president of marketing for Celio Corp., said.
In fact, according to Warnock, using the REDFLY for typing reports and other sorts of information is a lot like using a laptop for those purposes, with some important differences. Security is a serious concern with laptops, which have a way of disappearing occasionally, even from patrol cars. “If a laptop is lost, the data is lost, and your network might be compromised,” Warnock said. “If a REDFLY is lost, there’s no security issue, since it’s really only a link to a larger system, and there’s no data on it.”
REDFLY is also probably more durable than either a standard laptop or netbook. “We’ve done a number of tests on them, and while they’re not as durable as military equipment, say, they are tougher than ordinary netbooks,” Warnock said. “Even if the device is broken, replacement isn’t much of a problem—you can literally hand the officer another device, because all the settings are on the smartphone.”
For the MPD, another advantage of the REDFLY over a conventional laptop is that deployment was comparatively simple. “We sent an e-mail to the officers in the field that they should come by to see us about it,” Dean explained. “We usually have a day’s worth of classes or so for new devices, but in this case there really didn’t need to be any training. REDFLY was a quick addition to the department. They were put into service as fast as we could distribute them.”
The REDFLY is also cheaper than even the least expensive laptop or netbook (so far), though most departments would probably opt for a more expensive laptop suitable for police work, such as a Panasonic Toughbook, which, including wireless network fees and other expenses, runs into the thousands for each unit. Currently, the MSRP for the eight-inch monitor REDFLY is $299, while the slightly smaller seven-inch version lists for $229. The MPD acquired its REDFLYs for $165 each.
“We want to provide our officers with the best technology, while being good stewards of the taxpayers’ money,” Major Jim Harvey of the MPD stated. “This is a good investment.”
Not long after the department distributed REDFLYs to its mobile officers, Dean said he discovered another use for them. “It might not be of much interest to officers in the field, but you can hook up a PowerPoint projector to the REDFLY,” he noted.
Since their introduction to the department, the devices have been used for that purpose a few times at executive officer meetings. “Sometimes the laptops aren’t working properly,” Dean explained. “In that case, a REDFLY makes a handy substitute for those kinds of presentations.”
The useful lifespan of the REDFLY hasn’t been determined yet, since Celio only introduced it last year. “The original design hasn’t reached the end of its useful life, so we don’t know how long that will be,” Warnock said. Still, he expects to see upgrades of the device periodically. “It doesn’t exist independently of the smartphone,” he added. “That’s a product which can and is upgraded periodically, so the REDFLY will probably mirror some of those changes.”
On the whole, the MPD and its mobile officers seem pleased with their new REDFLY equipment. The bottom line is improved efficiency through ease-of-use in the field, Harvey said. “Now officers can do their jobs more effectively,” he elaborated, “and are very comfortable using their smartphones to file their reports.” Dees Stribling is a writer and editor based in the Chicago area, with an interest in public safety issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.