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NLETS Standards-Based Web Services

Written by Martin Gillespie

For nearly four decades, US and international law enforcement and public safety practitioners have relied on the National Law Enforcement Telecommunication System (NLETS) to obtain and share the critical operational information needed to perform their essential daily tasks.

Many of the nearly one million NLETS users (there are more than 500,000 devices connected to NLETS across the US and Canada) in every law enforcement and criminal justice agency in North America remain largely unaware of their reliance upon this little-known but essential network managed by a non-profit organization of the same name.

Just as we all depend on the availability and performance of public utilities like the national electric power grids and water supply systems, NLETS has worked silently and reliably in the background, constantly serving those who serve and protect.

Motivated by today’s pressing requirements, NLETS is stepping out of the background. It is taking on a leading role in the nation’s chief public safety challenge—delivering secure, reliable, standards-based information-sharing services for the justice and public safety community.

NLETS today offers a federated information-sharing model long established in the demanding law enforcement environment—where communication breakdowns cannot be tolerated. NLETS also has become critical at a time when the nation must enhance its ability to collaborate across federal and state and local government, and across public safety’s many disciplinary boundaries—such as law enforcement, prosecutors, courts, corrections and probation, emergency medical response, fire fighters, and public health.

NLETS understands the importance of reliable communications services and was an early adopter of accepted technology standards — extensible markup language (XML), Web Services and Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) — in order to maximize the information-sharing potential of its members. Based on industry-standard Microsoft Corporation’s .NET framework as well as the secure reliability of the company’s Windows Server 2003, law enforcement and the public safety community have quickly benefited from the information-sharing capabilities of the new technology.

NLETS in Justice and Public Safety

Created in 1966 by the principal law enforcement agencies of all 50 states, NLETS’ role has evolved from being primarily an interstate telecommunications service for law enforcement to a broad-based network providing an ever-growing number of key services to the justice and public safety communities at local, state, federal and international government levels.

The NLETS mission has expanded services to the first-responder community with instant, secure and authorized access to information stored in databases in all 50 states and member countries, as well as critical information stored in US federal government indices.

The array of information conveyed over NLETS now extends from driver license and vehicle information to criminal histories, “hit” confirmations and immigration records, from AMBER alerts to locate and protect endangered children, to drug investigations, aircraft registrations, hazardous material warnings, weather bulletins and terrorism alerts.

“At NLETS, we provide the behind-the-scenes communications network that allows a state trooper in Minnesota to check on an out of state license plate—say from California—that is being driven by someone who has a Virginia driver license,” Steve Correll, the Executive Director of NLETS, which is based in Phoenix, Arizona, explained.

“An officer can perform a query through our network, simultaneously retrieve information from California DMV regarding the vehicle and Virginia DMV regarding the driver, and check against state law-enforcement databases to determine if the driver has a criminal record, or is wanted by authorities. And all of this is done in a second and a half.”

Over the years, NLETS built its comprehensive network based on trusted connections with the justice, law enforcement and public safety databases of all 50 US states, US federal government agencies, Canada, and Mexico, to make critical information available to police and other first responder personnel in the field. In the process, the non-profit organization has gone through a series of technology refreshment initiatives designed to make the right information available as securely and quickly possible to its membership.

The resulting legacy system, though durable, had its problems. These were a function of age, its proprietary nature, and the absence of information standards across the membership. Nonetheless, this legacy system served as a conduit for officers in the field, routing information requests through the network to the appropriate state agencies across the country.

Driving Standards into the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Environment

One of the unique characteristics of the justice and public safety environment in the United States derives from its federated nature. Unlike other countries, the United States has no national police force and no governing public safety agency. US laws, regulations and standard operating procedures vary greatly from one region to the next, and have created different terms of reference for similar crimes and incidents.

This has resulted in the generation of reports from external jurisdictions that are unfamiliar and unclear to officers in the field. Thus, although data can be accessed and delivered relatively quickly, officers still have to take time to make sure they understand the information being presented.

To further facilitate the means of information exchange, NLETS has worked with its members and the broader criminal justice community to adopt and refine standard data formats designed to help police and other officials interpret the specific legal codes and terminology used by different states and agencies.

While NLETS has been a leader in the adoption and refinement of criminal justice information standards that help map those terms into a data dictionary that can be shared by officials across the country, its legacy communications system remained cumbersome in its ability to process and present the data. There was an equally compelling rationale to deploy a new system that made best use of the new data formats, and afforded the NLETS membership the greatest opportunity to maximize its information sharing potential.

“In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks it was clear that all unnecessary delays and potential for confusion needed to be removed from the reporting processes. Our first responders need to access and share existing information more securely, rapidly and effectively in a flexible manner that permits the correlation of information from a variety of sources,” Bob Slaski, Vice President of Business Development for Advanced Technology Systems (ATS), said.

This pressing need, combined with rapid developments in the creation of the Global Justice eXtensible Markup Language Data Model (GJXDM) and led by the US Dept. of Justice, clarified the direction that NLETS needed to take for its next technology refreshment initiative.

The Case for Service Oriented Architecture

As NLETS continued to expand the number of resources and services it makes available to officers and first responders it became increasingly clear that the underpinning network and infrastructure had to be capable of supporting a Service Oriented Architecture. SOA is an information-sharing approach that allows broad access to multiple external data sources by exposing, or making available, small components (called services) between automated systems using standards-based and well-defined technology—XML Web Services.

“We have to move beyond simply making data available. We need to be able to stand up new information-based services to first responders that will help them make informed decisions quickly, and help them perform their jobs better,” NLETS’ Correll said.

Rather than simply enabling point-to-point inquiries about a person, place or thing—Correll envisions a resource that provides first responders with a wealth of highly relevant information that will illuminate whatever situation they are trying to address. This could include many kinds of data, like warrant information, photographs, fingerprints, maps, building layouts, spreadsheets, etc.

These capabilities require the network to be more intelligent than is possible in traditional environments. The system must be able to present the most appropriate information at the right time in a context that is truly useful to the end-user.

“The legacy system provided an exact response to a specific request for information. But in today’s environment, we need our network to alert first responders to important issues of which they are unaware and might not know they should even ask about,” Correll said.

While traditional architectures are not optimized to support this level of requirement, it is exactly the sort of environment that can be created in a web-based and distributed computing environment operating in a Service Oriented Architecture, which permits the secure automated exchange of information—as services—between systems.

Developing the Architecture

Advanced Technology Systems Public Safety, a division of McLean, Virginia-based ATS, assisted NLETS efforts to support these new operational requirements and helped accomplish the organization’s transformation to an innovative public safety information-sharing service in the bargain.

ATS installed its Pyramid XML Message Router (XMR) at NLETS (since dubbed the NLETS XMR) to achieve the full value of XML and Web Services. The ATS product uses Microsoft Windows Server 2003 along with Microsoft’s.NET framework,, helping NLETS lead the first-responder community in the use of Internet technologies for mission-critical information exchange compliant with the Department of Justice’s Global XML Data Model.

The installation of the NLETS XMR provided the membership with the first interstate XML Web Services information exchange capability available in the law enforcement community on an SOA framework. The result provides the capabilities for new message transfer protocols, including Web Services and WebSphere® MQ, as well as supporting full bidirectional transformation of NLETS legacy and XML transaction formats.

ATS and NLETS achieved complete migration of NLETS message switching services to the NLETS XMR in April. The NLETS XMR now supports over 41 million message transactions each month—an annual figure approaching 500 million transactions.

The importance of the changes advanced by NLETS continues to resonate across the broader criminal justice community. Recently, the Department of Homeland Security endorsed the GJXDM framework, as has the U.S. Intelligence Community. Now, the Department of Justice and DHS are proceeding jointly on a broader effort that spans those enterprises, called NIEM, the National Information Exchange Model, which uses GJXDM as the core component for data description.

NLETS used all of these new technological capabilities in its work in the standards arena, funded by federal grants from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), to assist the criminal justice data standardization efforts through support of the Joint Task Force (JTF) on Rap Sheet Standardization, where NLETS directly sponsored development of the XML Rap Sheet specification.

NLETS also initiated the CANDLE Project (Collaboration between AAMVA—the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators and NLETS for Driver License Exchange) under an NIJ grant to define and deploy standardized interstate XML driver and vehicle related responses. These types of NLETS inquiries represent more than 20 million transactions per month and were previously plagued by inconsistent presentation of information to law enforcement officers on the front lines.

For NLETS, the changeover to SOA, XML and Web Services had three important objectives. First, transition all mission-critical message switch functions to the NLETS XMR to the Windows platform. Second, deliver critical new capabilities and provide improved customer service through the NLETS XMR developed by ATS employing the.NET solution. Third, continue leading the development and deployment of improved information-sharing services and support of the underlying data standardization initiatives.

In order to accomplish those objectives, ATS and NLETS partnered to perform a number of key tasks during this critical technology refreshment. ATS configured the NLETS XMR to perform all NLETS-specific message switching capabilities while ensuring high availability of service through Windows Server 2003. In addition, ATS used Microsoft’s .NET framework to develop a standardized interface for WebSphere® MQ transactions.

NLETS and ATS delivered the standardized criminal history reports, also called rap sheets, in collaboration with the FBI (as a side note, the new system now transfers nearly one million XML rap sheets per month). Further, NLETS and ATS assisted with technical exchanges on XML and Web Services, and offered training and outreach. By-products of the transition effort included enhanced functionality for the NLETS XMR, new data applications, and the establishment of standard system operating procedures.

ATS’ NLETS solution was based on Microsoft’s Windows Server 2003 and flexible .NET framework. Specific Microsoft technology included the Windows Server 2003 technology, which resolves enterprise communication network reliability and scalability concerns through the use of clustering and load-balancing. It also included the strength of standards-based communication enabled by the .NET framework—achieving unparalleled levels of interoperability across the multitude of proprietary U.S. public safety systems.

Microsoft has also made a significant commitment to public safety and homeland security and sees web services playing a vital role. Tom Richey, director of homeland security for Microsoft Public Sector, based in Washington, DC, said, “The interoperability afforded through Web Services is benefiting the nation’s homeland security efforts by integrating disparate systems across a variety of government entities. The Microsoft platform and our ability in areas around Web Services in connecting disparate infrastructures offers an incredible force multiplier that’s consistent with the goals and challenges of the Dept. of Homeland Security.”

Michael Byrne, director of justice and public safety for Microsoft Public Sector and a former New York City fireman, said the company’s initiatives not only around Web Services but also Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing strategy, can be successfully applied to public safety.

“Our country needs to ensure that fully interoperable communications systems are in place to carry critical information rapidly and uniformly, connecting law enforcement agencies so they can stay ahead of terrorists,” said Byrne. “We need to integrate the nation’s first responders so they are equally informed and able to respond to threats and large-scale incidents—whether in Manhattan or in rural America.

“In a world where we can access entertainment schedules, plan every form of recreation imaginable and buy just about anything instantaneously, it is unconscionable that our public safety workers do not have access to everything they need to both be safe and make us safe.”

The move toward a Service Oriented Architecture has afforded NLETS and its membership extraordinary benefits. These include the opportunity for full implementation of the developing DOJ GJXDM information standards across the broader public safety community when agencies are ready to make the change. Only then will they possess the potential to dramatically increase the number and kinds of information services delivered over the NLETS network.

By using open, industry standards, such as XML Web Services and other infrastructure technology, NLETS members will be able to integrate their applications, and also automate the exchange of information among disparate applications, data repositories and users as business processes dictate.

With the move to a Services Oriented Architecture based on the Microsoft .NET framework, NLETS has been able to reduce the cost of managing its far-flung network, even as it greatly expands the breadth and depth of member services.

According to NLETS officials, the XML Web Services environment allows members to opt-in to the new array of information services when and how they want. Moreover, control of the data developed by state agencies remains firmly with the members. This is important because, while many members of NLETS are interested in upgrading to an XML environment, resources and local governance issues must be addressed first.

“That is the beauty of working in a Web Services environment. Members don’t have to change the way they do business with NLETS until they are ready to make that change,” says Correll.

It may also be said that the beauty of working with public safety’s best kept secret is the NLETS organization’s commitment to service excellence, clearly demonstrated in its silent reliability, standards leadership and wise use of technology to improve core business processes—constantly serving those who serve and protect.

Martin Gillespie is the Vice President and General Manager of ATS Public Safety Solutions (www.atsva.com).
Photographs by Rick Ohnsman, Idaho State Police.

Published in Law and Order, Aug 2005

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