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Top 12 Considerations for a Successful Mobile Computing Project, Part 3

Written by Brad Brewer

Wireless Technologies

When choosing a ruggedized removable laptop solution, serious consideration must be given to installing the wireless modem kit of choice in the notebook (embedded) as opposed to in the vehicle. This will ensure wireless connectivity outside the vehicle. Some agencies prefer an in-vehicle modem or combination router, as they do not allow removable laptops.

Allowing the laptop out of the vehicle permits officers to write reports at community police stations in their assigned patrol areas or in specifically designed report-writing rooms where the laptops dock into desktop docking stations. The officers then sit at an ergonomically correct desk and use a standard keyboard and regular computer screen. If the laptops are configured with embedded wireless modems, then connectivity to CAD and all databases is maintained throughout the report entry process.

Today, most agencies look to a commercial cell carrier to provide wireless data. Some agencies are fortunate enough to have their own infrastructure for data radio or Wi-Fi hotspots that allows for better independence and security. For the most part, the current 3G technologies offered in North America are fast enough to support almost all law enforcement applications, including streaming video.

Usually your geographical area will dictate which wireless carrier or technology is better for coverage and penetration. Significant field testing is mandatory and “in-building” Radio Frequency (RF) extension systems or “boosters” should be considered. You cannot afford to lose connectivity every time you drive into a police building underground.

A new wireless solution could be the biggest change to wireless in the history of mobile computing. The Gobi solution is an embedded chipset radio module, a fully integrated new technology that is essentially a “software modem” that talks to all 3G frequencies regardless of the provider. This allows the user complete flexibility to choose whatever technology is stronger or has better coverage in a specific geographical location.

No more removing PCMCIA cards or swapping hardware modems. A change of technology simply means a quick firmware flash upgrade. Gobi features include improved signal strength, better upload and download speeds, much better stability and no hardware compatibility issues.

This is an enormous advantage for big agencies that have to provide wireless connectivity over a large geographical area. Currently these agencies may have several different wireless providers with several different software and hardware configurations that make support even more complicated. Gobi removes all these issues and allows for a single specification when ordering and for supporting. This feature will appeal to Federal agencies which may have multiple configurations across the entire country. Simple is always much more cost effective and reliable in terms of IT time and support.

Vehicle Docking Stations

No matter what the solution, mounting and docking systems are not all alike. Be careful when putting together your agency’s ergonomic in-vehicle setup. Try some different setups and then ensure they are put out in the field for “real” testing. Setting up a mock configuration at a desk in an office or on a table at a trade show is NOT a field test. Consider using docking station vendors that are partnered with computer vendors. This way the two are fully integrated and airbag compliant.

Radio Frequency (RF) pass-through to an external antenna is a must in any mobile computing solution. The antenna is usually the weak link. Getting that RF outside the vehicle is not only safer but allows for better reception. You want something specifically designed for the type of police vehicle your agency uses. Using a generic or “fits all” console, platform, pedestal and docking station good for all vehicles is not the best option.

Be careful not to mix and match vendors’ products that are not designed or engineered for each other. It’s always best to use a single vendor’s complete package for the console, base plate, pedestal and docking station. Consider the weight of a sheet-metal docking station causing potential torque forces. In a side-impact accident, the laptop weight plus the docking station top plate weight transfers the torque force to the connection between the pedestal and top plate.

A sudden side impact could cause docking station parts to sheer off or expel the laptop from the docking station and injure an officer. There are benefits to using aircraft aluminum as opposed to buying a docking station made out of folded sheet metal. In Canada, the RCMP conducts extensive testing to determine vehicle ergonomic safety with laptop docking systems. The military does similar extensive testing processes, and they can often be consulted for safe laptop docking configuration.

Look carefully at the electronic circuitry in your docking station replicator design. Whatever computer vendor you are using should be able to provide a circuit board or complete replicator package for your docking stations. Using the genuine circuit boards as opposed to a generic circuit board will affect the performance and features of your laptop.

Panasonic, which provides the most widely used ruggedized Toughbook CF-30, recommends a genuine Panasonic circuit board in any docking station used with its laptop. Using an aftermarket circuit board can affect things like processor performance, screen brightness, cold or hot weather functionality and, most importantly, warranty.

Make sure whatever you choose is airbag compliant and military tested to withstand serious impacts. Even in a serious impact, the laptop should never leave the docking station and become a projectile inside the vehicle. It will make a difference if your officer is involved in a motor vehicle incident.

“Dual pass-through” is a term that often confuses people and is really not that complicated. This term refers to two wireless technologies being allowed to pass through the docking station to rooftop external antennas. Typically a laptop has three technologies it can pass through: some type of data, Wi-Fi and GPS. The GPS module can either be embedded inside the laptop so the GPS stays accurate when the laptop is removed from the docking station, or it can be a standalone module in the vehicle.

Some agencies believe that GPS and data are the most important, so those get passed through the docking station to the rooftop antenna. The Wi-Fi is left to the laptop’s embedded antenna to transmit from inside the vehicle. A second option would be for the laptop to have its GPS embedded; then the GPS antenna is usually in the lid so it can transmit through the windshield when in the open position. This allows for the dual pass-through to be data/cellular and Wi-Fi on the outside of the vehicle. Each agency will have to decide which is best for their specific application and hardware.

AntennaPlus has a combination antenna that saves time and money by combining multiple antennas in one. The AP-Navigator 4X is a 4-in-1 solution, ideal for Panasonic Toughbook users who want to have cellular, Wi-Fi and GPS. Because only two embedded wireless technologies can be passed through to a docking station, you need a way to do the third technology—GPS. Inside the Navigator low-profile housing, AntennaPlus provides a Trimble GPS receiver, GPS antenna, Cellular antenna and Wi-Fi antenna. So, all of your antennas and your GPS receiver are in this one unit. This means you drill one hole in the vehicle, and installation is quicker and more cost effective.

True Mobile Reporting

One of the key project elements must be to ensure that a complete solution is actually achieved. The main reason for a mobile computing project is to move toward a paperless business process that is more efficient than the old paper reporting methods. The business process review done at the beginning of any project should clearly identify the benefits to a true mobile reporting project.

So what exactly is a true mobile reporting solution? It is a system where data is entered once and, unless it needs correcting or updating, it is never re-entered. From the moment the 9-1-1 call is entered by the 9-1-1 call taker, the dispatch ticket is created in the Computer Aided Dispatch software (CAD), and then the police dispatcher assigns it to a police officer’s laptop in the field.

Once the officer gets this information on the vehicle’s laptop and the call for service has been resolved, the officer should be able to complete the report right from the vehicle. In certain circumstances, such as an arrest with a suspect in custody, or seizing property, the officer will have to attend the Police HQ. But for the most part, all reports should be done right from the vehicle and sent wirelessly via commercial cell carrier data networks or agency-specific data radio networks.

These reports can be queued up for civilian quality control checking and then entered into the agency’s Records Management System (RMS) for other officers to access within minutes. The ideal setup would have other agencies able to access this information right from their vehicles as well. Can you imagine the benefit of having police RMS data right at the vehicle upon query of a person or vehicle? Your system should also be able to allow access to booking photos of suspects through low-resolution jpeg “mugshots” sent right to the laptop from the RMS.

True Mobile Reporting means the officers rarely leave their assigned patrol area for report writing unless specifically required. This allows for higher visibility and quicker response times to priority calls for service. Consider using Community Police Officers in the officer patrol areas to supplement the report process. Having desktop computers with access to the report-writing software and RMS will enhance efficiency. Having desktop docking stations for laptops allows officers to be seated correctly if the report is long without breaching any OH&S rules with regards to proper ergonomics.

Post Implementation Review/Commendations

The best way to measure your success is through a structured Post Implementation Review. The Post Implementation Review occurs for some period, typically three months, after the close of a project. You should be able to describe the project’s purpose, participants, process and your project team involvement in the Post Implementation Review.

This Review has two key purposes: First, to determine if the business benefits and objectives of the project were met, and second, to determine if appropriate methodology, standards and processes were followed, and what lessons can be learned to improve future project performance. The Project Manager (PM) or Project Champion must be careful to ensure that the manner in which the review is conducted does not turn people off and discourage future participation by front line staff or employees who would typically not be involved in such a large project.

The PM must also make sure blame is not attached to specific issues that may be discovered throughout this review. It is usually best to stick with the Comment, Suggestion and Recommendation format. This allows the issue to be identified, suggestions to be made, and then a recommendation for future projects to be documented. This is particularly important, as was previously stated, with project members who are foreign to the project management process. When your mobile computing project team is formed, it is best to have a significant front line or operational presence. A brutal Post Implementation Review can seriously discourage future operational support for projects.

One of the most important things a PM can do is to market the success of the project. Throughout the project, departmental communication should be frequent. After completing the rollout, the successes should be highlighted within your agency. Command Staff commendations for the Project Team go a long way in reinforcing the agency’s commitment to its people. Formal recognition for a job well done always boosts morale.

Consider some type of wrap-up social in conjunction with vendors and project supporters. Not only will this be an excellent networking opportunity, but it will assist in future issues and build corporate partnerships that will benefit the agency as a whole for years to come.

Brad Brewer is a patrol sergeant with the Vancouver Police Department. He is also a member of the Ford Police Advisory Board. He can be reached at sgt1411@rogers.blackberry.net.

Published in Law and Order, Oct 2009

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