When US Airways flight 1549 made an emergency landing in the Hudson River on Jan. 15, people across the nation rightfully praised pilot Chesley Sullenberger and the crew for protecting the life of every passenger on board. The rescue, however, would not have been complete without a multitude of emergency responders. Within 20 minutes, New York had a video system at the scene, and the Fire Department's Command Tactical Unit vehicle sent video back to its Operations Center and the Office of Emergency Management to help mobilize vehicles and organize equipment. "Having real-time data and not having to wait for the media to arrive and send back data for us helps make quicker decisions and save lives," says Nick Sbordone, director of external affairs for NYC Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications (DoITT).
The video system was possible because of New York's unprecedented, $500 million, high-speed wireless data network, known as NYCWiN, that covers all five boroughs. Just two weeks before the Hudson landing, Big Apple dreams big.")departments used the new wireless network and wireless cameras to monitor the millions of New Year revelers gathered at Times Square. (For more information on New York's network, see "
The array of wireless applications available to local governments — from public safety to utilities — continues to expand, especially now that the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) has set aside $4.7 billion to establish the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). At least $250 million of those funds will provide grants for "innovative programs to encourage sustainable adoption of services." ARRA also directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Rural Development Office to disburse $2.5 billion for broadband development in rural areas. "President Obama's commitment to expanding broadband services to rural areas will provide rural communities with access to worldwide markets and the education, first responder and health care resources they need to prosper and compete," said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in launching the joint broadband initiative under ARRA in March.
Ponca City, Okla., is using a citywide wireless broadband network to make city employees' jobs more efficient and effective. But, it's also using the network as an Small town goes high-tech.")tool for residents and businesses, many of who did not previously have high-speed broadband access. "We're hoping to allow North Central Oklahoma to be more technology-based," says Ponca City Mayor Homer Nicholson. "What we're finding is that today's farmer or rancher wants to be just as connected as the people in the city." Some of those individuals sell horses or food online and find it difficult to compete using dial-up. "If outside the city prospers, the inside prospers." (For more information on Ponca City's network, see "
For local governments with commercial carriers already offering wireless access to residents, it typically does not make sense for them to provide public wireless service, too. "Is that the core competency for local governments?" asks Mark Crosby, president of the Gettysburg, Pa.-based Enterprise Wireless Alliance. "It's not going to be a good source of revenue for counties." But, as Ponca City illustrates, if the service is unavailable to a considerable percentage of residents, establishing a network is possible and could offer a valuable public service. After launching the network a few months ago, the municipality of 26,000 residents already has 3,000 users.
TELLING … AND SHOWING
When it comes to wireless applications for use within local government, cities and counties are focusing on data transfer, so employees can access maps, criminal records and much more while they are in the field. The technology is fostering collaboration among various departments and increasing "situational awareness" for public safety departments.
"Everyone's best interest in the public safety world is to increase capability," says Steve Wisely, director of Communications Center and 911 services for the Alexandria, Va.-based Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO). "Interoperability is a buzz word associated with radio and voice communications, but it's becoming increasingly evident that data interoperability is as important or more important than voice."
For instance, envision the first team of firefighters arriving at a blaze. Before entering the building, they can view the situation on wireless network-connected laptops from multiple angles using International Association of Fire Chief's Technology Council.for mapping and 3-D aerial imagery. GPS, meanwhile, helps the responders locate assets, such as additional fire trucks and other equipment, and determine when they will arrive. Technology also is now available to monitor a firefighter's breathing apparatus and how much air is left. Soon, units will be able to track a firefighter's location in the building, making it easier to rescue them if they go down, according to Charles Werner, fire chief for Charlottesville, Va., and chair of the Fairfax, Va.-based
While voice communication is still vital, Wisely says that less talking can sometimes help responders better assess a situation. Rather than firefighters or EMS responders having to listen to information and take notes during an emergency, they can review information on a laptop and interpret it for themselves.
Collaboration between departments, cities and other organizations — even universities and hospitals — means more data to share and more resources to pool to fund broadband wireless network implementation and maintenance. Using a broadband network, information as well as text updates can transfer to people with authorization. "It's the best way to encourage interoperability that they have," Werner says.
While agencies see the need to cooperate over larger communications networks, they also want to be able to restrict a certain amount of information. Individual networks can secure data sets they do not want shared. For example, Anaheim, Calif., is using a wireless mesh network to collect readings from residential electric meters. When residents sign up for electric service, they typically have to provide a Social Security and driver's license number, information that is highly secured, says Steve Nees, the city's technology development manager. The police sometimes want access to that information, but it is not shared with them.
Two of the first steps in building a wireless network are creating a security model so agencies know which critical data should not be shared and a governance model outlining how the network will run, Sbordone says. With NYCWiN, DoITT ensured that the needs of the various agencies, including fire, police and the department of transportation, were met. "They all have different needs," Sbordone adds. "That's the largest challenge."