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OPP Put Toughbooks, Rugged Modems Into Cars

As Canada’s most urbanized province (population approximately 11 million), Ontario has thousands of miles of highways. Policing them is the job of the 5,000-plus uniformed officers of Canada’s Ontario Provincial Police (OPP). From the outside, the OPP’s white / blue / gold patrol cars look sharp and modern. But looks can be deceiving: until recently, the interiors haven’t kept pace.

Specifically, OPP officers have been doing their jobs without the benefit of in-car notebook computers and wireless data links. Of course, they can ask OPP Dispatch to look up information for them, but this can take precious minutes during peak periods. As a result, some officers end up guessing about the dangers they face when approaching pulled-over vehicles. Sometimes, these guesses are fatally wrong.

On the paperwork side, the lack of in-car computers means that OPP officers spend a lot of time driving to the station to write up reports. This is time that could be spent patrolling the province’s highways instead.

Fortunately, the situation is improving for 320 OPP patrol cars posted to the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), home of Ontario’s major 400 series highways. The reason? $2.9 million is funding the deployment of notebooks and wireless modems in these cars. Using high-speed data services provided by two commercial cellular carriers— Bell Mobility and TELUS Mobility— the 320 patrol cars are becoming as well-connected to the OPP’s data networks as any PC in the station house. For officers on the front line of highway law enforcement, this degree of mobile automation is a life-saving change.

What’s Being Installed

The OPP’s new mobile automation system is based on two components: the Panasonic CF28 ToughBook and the Sierra Wireless MP 555 GPS Rugged Modem.

For most LAW and ORDER readers, the ToughBook needs little introduction. Packed into a magnesium alloy case— which is 20 times stronger than consumer-grade ABS plastic— the ToughBook is able to survive bumps and jolts that would kill conventional laptops. As well, the ToughBook’s hard drive and floppy disk drive are polymer gel-mounted, to absorb disk-damaging vibrations. Finally, the ToughBook’s keyboard and touchpad are fully sealed, to keep out dust, rain, etc.

The CF28 ToughBooks being installed by the OPP represent the current “state-of-the-art.” Each one is equipped with an Intel Mobile Pentium III 1 GHz processor, a 30 GB hard drive, and 256 MB of SDRAM memory. (This is enough power to run video games!) The CF28 also has a 12.1" Ultra Bright TFT color touchscreen which can be viewed even in direct sunlight, a backlit keyboard for nighttime use, and an in-car docking station.

The docking station provides power from the car’s 12-volt power supply, and connects the CF28 to the Sierra Wireless MP 555 wireless modem. (The ToughBook is also connected to an in-car “Impact” printer, for generating hard copies on the road.) Mounted in the trunk, the MP 555 is a “next generation” wireless modem. In plain English, it can connect to the high-speed CDMA2000 1X networks (1X) operated by Bell Mobility and TELUS Mobility (a GPRS / GSM version is also available), rather than having to crawl data through older cellular networks.

How fast is high-speed wireless? “When we tested the system last year in 2002, we found that the 1X networks consistently provide 60-65 kbps of data to our patrol cars,” Lawre Pietras, Team Leader of the OPP’s Projects and Procurement Management Unit, said. “This is better than conventional dialup Internet service through a telephone-connected PC. Given that the data we’re sending is mainly text, it’s as fast as if you were sitting at your desk connected to our wired network. Menwhile,1X’s native security is very strong due to the way the carriers have deployed it. We’ve put our own layer of security on top of this, making it extremely difficult for anyone to hack into our network.”

Of course, the OPP could have achieved the same wireless data speeds by installing 1X modems inside the ToughBooks, rather than separately in the trunk. However, using integrated units would have presented unacceptable security risks, Pietras said. “We know that other police departments have had notebooks stolen from their patrol cars,” he explained. “By keeping the modem separate and secure in the trunk, we can at least keep the thieves from accessing our networks.”

Beyond offering fast data transfers up to 153 kbps (if the connecting network can support it), the MP 555 is equipped with a GPS transceiver. This means it can tell officers where their cars are, and continuously relay this information back to Dispatch. In turn, Dispatch can use this information to deploy the nearest cars when incidents arise, and to quickly locate officers who may be in trouble.

Finally, the MP 555 is tough. For instance, it’s built to keep running in temperatures ranging from -22F to +158F. As well, the MP 555 meets U.S. military and Society of Automotive Engineer (SAE) J1455 standards for resisting, shock, vibration and humidity.


For Lawre Pietras, installing the ToughBooks and MP 555 modems hasn’t been a big challenge. Instead, what has demanded the most attention is “getting the equipment we need from vendors when we need it, at a price that fits our budget,” he said.

“As well, it took some work to get all of this running through the commercial 1X wireless networks,” Pietras noted. “It wasn’t the individual components that were a problem, but rather having to integrate them all into a seamless solution. For instance, we had to get through a number of firewalls to provide RMS access to our cars, and do so in a way that didn’t compromise security.”

With the CF28 and MP 555 on board, OPP patrol officers are as well-connected as if they were at the station. But what does this mean? First, “our officers can now access our Records Management System (RMS) in their cars,” replied Pietras. “When an occurrence is called into the OPP, we put the data into our Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) System. If it is logged as “reportable,” the data goes directly into the RMS. With 1X access, patrol officers can now see every bit of information on the incident that’s available, as soon as it’s available.”

Second, “patrol officers can tap into the national CPIC (Canadian Police Information Centre) database,” he added. CPIC is Canada’s authoritative police database; one contains the names and addresses of all convicted Canadian criminals. “In the future, we intend to make mug shots available across the OPP network as well. Imagine the difference this could make to a patrol officer!”

Third, “our patrol officers can now write their reports in their cars,” Pietras noted. “Ironically, this takes us back to the OPP’s pre-computer days, when officers would take a briefcase to their cars and remain on the road all shift. Considering that the typical patrol zone is an hour’s drive across, you can estimate how much time was lost returning to the station to write reports, and how much more policing we can get from the same personnel now that they don’t have to.”

All told, the Ontario Provincial Police are particularly happy with mobile automation; both in terms of improving police work, and protecting their officers. “Of any project I’ve worked on for the OPP, this is the one that will provide the greatest payback to those who need it most,” Pietras said. “That’s the officers in the field.”


James Careless is a freelance journalist specializing in first responder communications. He may be reached at For more articles on fleet management, see, or subscribe to Police Fleet Manager Magazine.

Published in Law and Order, Feb 2004

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