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TMCNet:  Area police agencies look to broadband for the future [St. Cloud Times, Minn.]

[October 09, 2012]

Area police agencies look to broadband for the future [St. Cloud Times, Minn.]

(St. Cloud Times (MN) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Oct. 09--As the Internet begins to permeate every aspect of our lives, we've come to expect instantaneous access to information. For the public safety community, this ease of access could mean they are able to assess a situation that much quicker, and send that life-saving helicopter that much sooner, or follow criminals wherever they go.


For Benton County, some of that technology is already being deployed.

Benton County was selected as a Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities initiative administered by the Blandin Foundation, which wrapped up its work earlier this year. Though Benton County's MIRC efforts focuses on business education and digital literacy, other MIRC communities used the funds for public safety programs.

Benton's Emergency Management Director Jim McDermott testified to the usefulness of broadband access.

McDermott is a self-described tech nut. He regularly uses the internet and apps to plan for emergencies in the county and pushes other agencies to do so.

"To have broadband throughout the entire county would be a tremendous boost to public safety," McDermott said. However, he's skeptical as to when that would happen.

But he says it will be increasingly needed, as the tech-saavy generation moves up and out -- they'll demand notifications via their smart phone, not necessarily through the traditional print, TV and radio sources.

He already has accounts on Facebook and Twitter. Benton County also opened up an Emergency Mass Notification System that works as a reverse 911. Residents can sign up for alerts to their land and mobile lines as well as email. Stearns County offers similar services.

McDermott is also thinking about the emergency that could pop up in a rural part of Benton County. He encourages every township to have wireless available in their building.

He's also equipped with the mobile hotspots available commercially.

He sees iPads as an incredible tool for emergencies in the operation centers, and he has gotten board approval for a number of iPads to be purchased for county use. It would be useful to get the instantaneous, boots-on-the-ground information streamed video could provide.

An app available to McDermott can help first responders quickly deal with an improvised explosive device or a hazardous materials (hazmat) situation. It quickly calculates an evacuation radius, factors in real-time weather data, determines needed road blocks and identifies schools and emergency centers near the area. Other apps will help narrow down what a substance is so they can quickly look up procedures to deal with it.

He also has programs to track dangerous weather systems.

McDermott has also set up wiki pages for agencies he works with so they can post electronic copies of information and share it. For instance, Benton County's Emergency Operation Plan is available there.

He also has mapping apps, a police radio, apps on setting up a crime scene. One app shows him every current alert in the world. There are also extrication guides for cars which show areas to cut or to avoid.

Forty years ago, working in Waite Park for a rescue operation, they had to rely purely on human experience.

Will agencies in Central Minnesota get on board with all the new technology coming available That remains to be seen. And, as McDermott points out, you can take a horse to water, but you can't make it buy an iPad.

"Sometimes it takes a massive disaster" to illustrate the usefulness, he said.

Another MIRC Community, Windom, used some of their funding to buy laptops, mobile network cards and software for 13 law enforcement and emergency responder vehicles.

"It enhances the ability to have faster service, but it also increases the safety as well," said Aaron Backman, executive director at the Windom Economic Development Authority.

"Overall, when I talked to some of the police men and ambulance people and others, they seem real pleased with having this technology in their units," he said. "It is increasing the safety of the early responders and the public." While McDermott and the new users in Windom have to rely on sometimes-sketchy commercial cellphone or Internet coverage, the state of Minnesota has been working on a number of initiatives to bolster its public safety agencies with technology.

The first is the statewide radio system, said Jackie Mines, director of Emergency Communication Networks, part of the Department of Public Safety.

That initiatives ensures varied agencies can communicate in a crisis, even across boundaries.

"Minnesota really leads this initiative," she said. The issue received attention following the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Currently, the department is working on a next-generation, statewide 911 system. Operators can often easily transfer voice communication to a neighboring center but not necessarily all the data gathered from that call at the same time.

Also, the increased use of cell phones means 911 calls may not always end up at the closest agencies and have to be transferred.

"That's upgrading an old voice system to a high speed data network," she said.

The new system will give agencies access to additional data, like maps and location data, blueprints of buildings and medical information. All that could then be transferred with the call information from the dispatcher to the responder.

For instance, someone with a seizure disorder could opt into a medical database. So if they make a 911 call but are not able to speak, the person who takes the call can make an assumption.

"The biggest thing that's happening today is people are getting rid of their landlines" and the physical addresses that come along with them, she said. So mapping technology is becoming incredibly important.

Once next-generation 911 is available throughout the state, 911 text messages become a possibility. But first, they have to get carriers to decide how they will perform the service, and they want to make sure it's available statewide.

It wouldn't be practical to deploy text message 911 in Hennepin County but not Dakota County, Mines said.

The third initiative is the creation of a wireless broadband system for public safety.

National legislation enacted by Congress this year created a network called the First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, which is charged with building, deploying and operating the network.

The act provided $7 billion towards deployment and another $135 million for a new state and local implementation grant program.

The state organization is self-funded based on 911 fees to pay for the improvements. Federal grant money has been available, but they used that mostly to build up the system at the local level with buying radios and education, though that's a less-steady funding mechanism.

In May, the Department of Public Safety released a report on face-to-face interviews and other surveys it conducted with state agencies and select regional and local agencies, including St. Cloud.

The survey looked at what the agencies were currently using and what they would like to be using. Broadband was deemed useful in a variety of emergency situations like tornadoes, flooding, school shootings, pandemics, large hazmat incidents and fires.

Survey respondents said they'd expect a 50 percent jump in the number of wireless devices they'll need to accommodate by 2015. Infrastructure like a statewide wireless broadband system that's consistent, ubiquitous, reliable and secure would be useful for those devices, Mines said.

"It gives us additional data that can really make the difference in how quickly we can answer that call," she said.

Though there is no time frame yet for FirstNet to develop the standards for a network and then allow states to opt in or out of the program.

"What we've done, be very proactive and ready to go, we can take advantage of it" as soon as the information becomes available, Mines said.

Agencies have been cooperating in other ways to develop regional exercises so agencies across state and U.S. borders can work together.

Mines mentioned cooperation with Canadians over recent wildfires in the north west.

The state also already has mobile cell towers able to be deployed to the scene of a larger emergency, one for every seven radio regions.

Privacy and security concerns are also part of this conversation, especially considering the use of sensitive medical information. And public officials don't necessarily know the answers yet.

"I think we are farther ahead on the technology and how to do it," Mines said, "than we are in how to control it." A recent example of this was the license plate location data gathered and sometimes kept by agencies in the Twin Cities. A Star Tribune story raised questions about if, and how long, agencies can and should be able to collect that information or if the information was public.

As they move forward with a state wireless broadband network, the agency is very interested in partnering with different agencies both private and public.

And just because the wireless broadband network isn't complete doesn't mean agencies aren't using commercially available wireless.

What's clear is broadband is the way of the future.

"I think in a lot of ways some assumption by the public that we have the ability to do this," Mines said. "In their work life and personal life, (they) have access to so many things." "But I think there's so many facets to this that are a little complicated, like preserving the integrity of the network." Mines said. "The real reason those kinds of things aren't available yet is because it has to be a very solid secure network that's up all the time.

"We're taking a very cautious approach to all of this," she said. "We want to make sure as we're transitioning to new technology, we're not going backwards in the services." UNPLUGGED UNPLUGGED This report is part of an occasional series on the state of broadband access across Minnesota. Leaders believe it is key to building jobs, maximizing education offerings and allowing Minnesota to compete in a global marketplace.

MORE ONLINE MORE ONLINE Read more about the federal effort at www.ntia.doc.gov/category/public-safety.

Read more about the Emergency Communications Networks at https://dps.mn.gov/divisions/ecn/Pages/default.aspx.

Find out more about what the Department of Public Safety is researching about broadband at https://dps.mn.gov/pages/Results.aspx k=broadband.

REGISTER FOR EMERGENCY NOTIFICATIONS REGISTER FOR EMERGENCY NOTIFICATIONS http://www.co.stearns.mn.us/LawPublicSafety/EmergencyServices http://www.co.benton.mn.us/Emergency_Notification_System.php ___ (c)2012 the St. Cloud Times (St. Cloud, Minn.) Visit the St. Cloud Times (St. Cloud, Minn.) at www.sctimes.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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