Since the deployment of the first mobile computers in police cruisers more than 20 years ago, the ability to access and exchange information between first responders in the field and their dispatch centers has grown steadily.  Of course, early mobile technology involved customized hardware and software that was limited in scope and function.  However, the benefits of accessing criminal justice data remotely proved immediately valuable to law enforcement.  In the 1980 movie, The Blues Brothers, “Jake” and “Elwood” learned this lesson the hard way after being pulled over by a police car equipped with the “State County Municipal Offender Data System,” also known as “SCMODS.”  In the almost 30 years since then, mobile data-access systems – particularly those that are now standard equipment in most police vehicles – have greatly enhanced the ability of law enforcement personnel to identify wanted persons, stolen tags, and vehicles, and to obtain a broad spectrum of other information that helps them better and more quickly respond to the myriad situations they may encounter in the field.  

For many years, most of the information exchanged has been one-way: from the center to the field users. Although CAD (computer-aided dispatch) technologies have long enabled responses to centers from the field, a high percentage of this type of “communication” was nothing more complex than the acknowledgement of assignments via a push-button interface.  However, over the past five years the advent of high-speed wireless data networks, combined with the increased availability of more generic PC-based mobile computers, has significantly extended the boundaries of what is or soon will be possible with the massive increase in mobile computing capabilities among first responders.  

Also Featured: A New Generation of Users 

Customized CAD software remains prevalent, but the standardization of hardware, coupled with the increased ease of network access, has quickly led many first responders to reinvent how they use their mobile computers. And one of the newly available capabilities now coming to the fore is live data communications.  The benefits flowing from a major increase in data communications capabilities should be readily apparent to anyone who has ever used instant messaging software. Those benefits become even more evident when one considers that the latest generation of first responders has grown up with this technology and is already comfortable navigating multiple, simultaneous IM sessions, often cutting and pasting data across chat windows. 

This type of communication and data sharing is not possible via voice communications alone and therefore “speaks” to the power of the new communications systems already or soon to be coming on line. The bottom line here is that, although first-responder technology has arrived relatively late to the data communications party, the capability is now here and is becoming increasingly ubiquitous as well as more accessible with the deployment of each new mobile data system. 

Moreover, it seems probable that, as time passes, more and more first responders will report in for their first day on the job immediately able to take full advantage of these tools.  One key question lingers, though: Namely, how should the new officers on patrol best use the new systems to enhance their operational effectiveness? Many agencies have introduced this new capability, but have provided only limited guidance to either govern or facilitate its use.  This is not entirely surprising, given that the capability is so new and the means for first responders to best exploit that capability are still somewhat speculative at best. However, there are certain incremental steps that could and should be taken to achieve specific operational objectives through use of these new communications tools. 

Simplicity, Security, Safety, and SOPs 

A good start would be to identify how, given their differentiating capabilities, data communications systems can specifically complement traditional voice/radio communications.  Inherently, data communications provide greater information clarity: The letter “B” is just that, for example – a “B.” There is no need, therefore, to say “Bravo” to ensure that the recipient does not mistake the “B” for a “D” or a similar-sounding letter. Data communications are also more secure – would-be eavesdroppers cannot simply buy a Radio Shack scanner to tap into first-responder chat rooms. Moreover, unlike traditional radio, conversations can be one-to-one or one-to-a-select (but identifiable) many. Finally, the data provided is persistent. There is no need to ask, “What did you say?” The only thing needed is to “scroll up” to the information already provided. With the unique capabilities of data communications in mind, law-enforcement agencies can begin to better exploit the new technologies now available to directly enhance both their field operations and communications within the agency itself. 

 This probably would be most effectively accomplished through the development of standard operating procedures (SOPs) and some carefully designed performance metrics.  The guidance provided would be crucial to ensuring consistent and regular use of this new and powerful communications channel.  Initially, any new procedures developed probably should focus on internal communications.  However, this would be only a temporary stop on the way to even greater communications capabilities in the very near future. Today, more and more data messaging tools are becoming available that are enabling communications across various jurisdictions, disciplines, and levels of government.  The rules of engagement across these domains probably will take a bit more time to discern, but there is little doubt that the end results will be well worth the wait.

Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso

Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso is the executive director of the Capital Wireless Information Net (CapWIN) Program at the University of Maryland, which provides software and mission-critical data access services to first responders in and across dozens of jurisdictions, disciplines, and levels of government. Formerly with IBM Business Consulting Services, he has more than 20 years of experience supporting large-scale implementation projects for information technology, and extensive experience in several related fields such as change management, business process reengineering, human resources, and communications.

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