Category Archives: Seattle Police

The Oso Disaster:  Should there be an “App for That”?

Snohomish County Mudslide

Snohomish County Mudslide

The horrific mudslide and loss of life in Snohomish County on March 22nd is an ongoing tragedy in Washington State.   Six days after the disaster, 16 people are known dead and 90 are still missing.     A debate rages about Steelhead Drive near Oso, Washington.  This was a known slide area, geologically unstable.  Search and rescue workers will be hard at work for some weeks digging through the mud and debris scattered across one square mile up to 30 feet deep.

Why were building permits issued for this area?   Should the County government have purchased these homes to get the residents out of harm’s way, as King County apparently did in Maple Valley?  Was the Washington National Guard activated quickly enough?   These questions are unanswerable at this time.

One fact is certain:  future disasters such as the Oso Slide will occur.   They might be slides, or bridge collapses or floods.   They could be much larger in scope:  an earthquake, lahar, tornado or terrorist event.

We live in an age of the Internet and smartphones and ubiquitous technology.   There are apps and technologies which can help responders to disasters such as the Oso Slide.   What are they, and how can we apply them.

Mapping

Oso-slide-sh

Oso Slide Map

Most people understand maps.  Maps help us intuitively understand our place in the world and even our location on our block.   Maps on our smartphones guide us easily to unknown addresses and give us warning of traffic problems on the route.

The Oso Slide and similar disaster scenes present a new problem:  the third dimension: height (or now, depth).   We know the two dimensional map of the Oso:  outlines of properties and the Stillaguamish river and Highway 530.   And we know a vast volume of mud now covers that area.  But in pursuing rescue efforts, how deep is the mud in any particular area?   Where should searchers concentrate their efforts?

LIDAR of Oso Slide

LIDAR of Oso Slide

Ideally, we’d have 3-dimensional maps of all such geographic areas prior to a slide, and we’d be able to quickly produce 3-dimensional maps after a slide or lahar.  Such maps would show the depth and extent of the mud throughout the disaster area.   Such maps can be produced by technologies such as LIDAR and pictometry.

Common Operating Picture

Common Operating Picture or COP is an extension of mapping.  COP maps show everyone involved in responding to the disaster – but especially the incident commanders – an up-to-the-minute view of the scene.  COP software will show the location of each individual responder, the location of all equipment on the scene, markers for human remains discovered and all other significant debris.  The COP software allows the incident commander to properly direct new resources – vehicles, equipment and people – to exactly where they are needed on-scene.    And COP software protects the responders by accounting for them every minute they are in the disaster area.

Just as importantly, COP will produce a history of the disaster as rescue unfolds.  It will show areas which have been physically surveyed, where remains were uncovered and how the rescue proceeded.   This is vital so that responders can learn about the incident and train to better handle the next one.

Seahawks Victory Parade

Seahawks Victory Parade (Reuters)

COP is vital not just in mudslides, but in just about any incident, whether it be for deploying police and emergency medical teams during the Seahawks victory parade, protecting fans at a Mariners’ baseball game, managing a major fire or responding to a terrorist event.    COP is the incident commanders’ best friend when it comes to managing all the responders and equipment on-scene.

As one example, the Seattle Police Department leads an effort to deploy COP software from a company called 4QTRS for emergency and incident management.   COP software should be deployed and used by every emergency response agency in the nation.

GPS and cell phones

Most of us know our smart phones contain global positioning software (GPS).   GPS allows us to tweet and use Foursquare and to post photographs to Facebook which automagically contain the location of the photograph.  Many of us use apps like “Find my iPhone” which depend upon GPS.

From an emergency response viewpoint, when you call 911 from a mobile phone the GPS in the phone or (if it has no GPS), the location of the phone as triangulated between nearby cell phone towers allows responders to find you, even if you can’t tell them exactly where you are.

Beyond mobile phones, a number of companies are starting to develop and produce small devices which can be attached to keys or pets or even to kids (in their clothes or backpacks, not in their bodies!) to quickly locate lost keys or wallets.  PebbleBee is one such device under development by two Boeing engineers in their spare time.

There are many applications of GPS in search-and-rescue.

In the case of the Oso slide, emergency services and wireless companies could find every signal which was active in the area based on records from nearby towers.  Those signals link back to a wireless phone number and account.  This gives responders some idea of which people (or at least which people’s mobile phones) were in the area prior to the slide.    It is doubtful the cell phone signal would travel through many feet of mud, but it is still possible that, even after the slide ended, telecommunications company records might show which cell phones were active and give some idea of where the phones were located.

In many other kinds of disasters, such information might be crucial.  During floods, major snowstorms, tornadoes and hurricanes, having an accurate fix on all the mobile phones in the disaster area, both before and after the event, would be critical to finding and rescuing the injured.

Yes, tracking the locations of individual people is very much like living in a surveillance state.  But if you are buried in a collapsed house it could mean the difference between life and death.  Your family’s life.

License Plate Recognition and Traffic Video Cameras

Video cameras are ubiquitous on streets and highways nationwide.   Seattle Police collected over 7 million plate numbers and locations using license plate recognition (LPR) software in 2012.

Perhaps every traffic camera in the state should be equipped with digital recording software to record the vehicles and license plates passing down state highways.   In the case of the Oso Slide, emergency managers could quickly determine which vehicles entered the Steelhead Drive area but did not leave, giving good evidence of who might be trapped in the slide.

Again, such video tracking and license plate recognition raises grave concerns about privacy.   Polices and laws may need to be crafted to keep the data restricted, perhaps just in the hands of transportation departments unless allowed for police or responder use in an emergency.  The digital records should be destroyed after some short period of time, e.g. 30 days.

School Emergencies and Building Diagrams

A Potential Campus Diagram App

A Potential Campus Diagram App

School shootings and other incidents of domestic terrorism involving schools, shopping malls and elected officials are all too common.  Anyone can name a dozen or such incidents such as the Tacoma Mall shooting from a few years ago, Gabby Giffords’ shooting, Columbine, LAX airport, the Washington Navy Yard and the terrible massacre at Sandy Hook.

Can apps and technology help with the response to such events?

Prepared Response is a firm in Kirkland which specializes in digitizing school building and campus diagrams, shopping mall diagrams and similar small-scale maps.   They’ve developed software called Rapid Responder.   Using this app officials can note the locations of exits, hazardous materials, utility shut-offs, evacuation plans, shelter-in-place locations and much more.    The app and diagram can be used by agencies responding to a school or mall emergency to properly deploy officers and quickly enter the building.   There is the potential for such an app to be connected to the video cameras inside the schools or malls, so the responders could actually see, real-time, what’s happening in the building.

Other Applications

Alex Petit is the former Chief Information Officer for the State of Oklahoma.  John Letchford is the former CIO for Massachusetts.  Both these CIOs deployed technology to support disasters such as the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado and the Boston Marathon bombing.    Here is a smattering of the apps they quickly deployed, “on the fly”, after the disaster:

  • A Pinterest-based app to take photos of prized possessions found in the debris field in the wake of the Moore tornado.   In many cases such possessions were intact but had been carried hundreds of feet or miles from the original home.   The Pinterest app “Owner Connect” allowed people to post photos of the items found on their property so their neighbors could identify and reclaim them.
  •  The Oklahoma Agriculture Department produced an app called “Pet Connect” to do a similar function for lost pets – allow the finders to post photos of the pets so the owners could reclaim them.
  • Donations.  After any disaster, people across the nation are extraordinarily generous with donating food, water, blood, clothing and other material.   The “donor connect” app operated like a bridal registry after the Moore tornado, allowing the Red Cross and others to quickly link the needs for certain items to those which had been donated.
  • Storm shelters.   Some homes in Moore had storm shelters and families went into those shelters before the tornado struck.   But there was so much debris that some of the shelters were jammed shut with debris.   Creating a map of known storm shelters is a potential future app for tornado-and-hurricane-prone areas of the country.
FirstNet

FirstNet

FirstNet

Many of the applications described above require a robust wireless network in order to properly work.   But, after some disasters, many cell sites may be destroyed or run out of power and go off the air.   Hurricane Katrina was possibly the worst example of such lack of wireless networking, but similar problems occurred after Superstorm Sandy and other disasters.

Recognizing this problem, Congress, in 2012, created the First Responder Network Authority and funded it to build a nationwide 4G wireless network for use by responders to both daily incidents and major disasters.    FirstNet is now in the planning stage, but promises to give responders the network they need to support this wide variety of apps which can speed rescue after incidents.

 Will we be ready for the Next One?

Nothing will ease the pain of the survivors and relatives of the Oso Slide.   No technology can produce a time machine to go back and evacuate 100 people from Steelhead Drive in the early morning hours of Saturday, March 22nd.    But we can learn from this disaster.   We can apply existing technology and develop new apps to speed and improve our response to such disasters in the future.    Because these disasters will occur again.   And we need to be better prepared.

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Filed under emergency operations, FirstNet, Seattle Police

Seattle Needs More Video Surveillance

Seattle Video CameraViolent crime statistics tell us that Seattle is safer now than it was 10 or 12 years ago; that violent crime – even in the last year – has decreased. But statistics are cold comfort to downtown shoppers in light of the September stabbing death of a Shoreline Community College professor after a Sounders’ game, drive-by shootings like the one at the Othello Street light rail station last month and the attack on a Metro bus driver downtown earlier this year.

Both Mayor Michael McGinn and Mayor-elect Ed Murray have proposed adding additional police officers — perhaps 15 to 25 more — to the Seattle Police Department. But those numbers are tiny: Putting an officer on the street costs $100,000 a year and, in order to make sure there’s one additional officer on the street at any given time, you’d have to add five officers to the department.

Clearly the city cannot afford to buy its way to improved public safety this way.

Luckily, technology provides a cheaper option: surveillance cameras.

Read the rest of this article on Crosscut here

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Filed under Law Enforcement, Seattle Police, wi-fi

- Citywatch

Block Watch - click to see moreThis past Tuesday night, there were 1,219 parties in the street all around Seattle. Kids, hot dogs, drinks, cops and firefighters and neighbors everywhere. It was part of the National Night Out. And it was, perhaps, one of the last in Seattle, as the City may cut the jobs of six or seven crime coordinators responsible for the Blockwatch program.

Blockwatch programs are a widespread form of civic engagement. And they’ve morphed over the years adopting technology to become more effective. Now the combination of the Great Recession, the Great Budget Crisis and the explosion of social media such as Facebook, they are likely to morph again into a new and cool form of civic engagement, if we can maintain the thin blue line of civilians who run the programs.

Blockwatches, often called neighborhood watches, are a staple of many communities across the United States. I talked to Terrie Johnston, a crime prevention coordinator and 30 year employee in the Seattle Police Department, and she gave me some history of Blockwatches in the Seattle PD. This history is typical of Blockwatches across the nation and Canada.

Often a Blockwatch starts around a particular incident in a neighborhood. Sometimes it is a series of burglaries, or perhaps a drive-by shooting, or an incident near a school. One or more people in a neighborhood get concerned enough to call the local police precinct or Seattle Crime Prevention. The crime prevention coordinator sets up a meeting with the neighbors, discusses the incident and related crimes, and gives the neighbors hints, tips and advice on how to be watchful and protect each other.

Amazingly, Terrie says, it is young families with children who often initiate the Blockwatch or get involved to protect their families. I say “amazingly” because it is this demographic – young people who have kids and very busy lives, often with two jobs – who are hard to get involved in public meetings with City officials. Not so with the Blockwatch!

From this beginning, Blockwatches progress in a variety of ways. Many become social groups as well as crime prevention tools. In my neighborhood we have an e-mail list, we get together for a Christmas party, we even watched the Presidential debates of 2008.
In most Seattle neighborhoods, the Blockwatches also organize themselves into a SNAP (Seattle Neighborhoods Actively Prepare) team. Seattle will have a major earthquake in the future. Such a quake – perhaps at 8 or even 9 on the Richter scale – will mean many neighborhoods may be isolated and have to survive on their own for many days. Neighbors need caches of food and water, need to know first aid and light search and rescue. Neighbors need to help each other.

There are probably a thousand active blockwatches in Seattle, but the Seattle Police crime coordinators have a list of 4000 blockwatch contacts.
The crime coordinators actively stay in touch with their Blockwatch contacts. Originally this contact was by conducting meetings and handing out fliers or maps of recent crimes. While they still attend meetings, make phone calls and hand out paper, the coordinators have also adapted technology. By far the most common method of contact now is e-mail, and they’ll email hints and tips or alerts to their Blockwatch Captains and contacts.

The most active Captains themselves will suggest alerts and updates – for example alerting neighbors to a Memorial Day observance at a military cemetery which included gunshots – a 21 gun salute. Every precinct has a blog and web page for crime prevention.

Crime Mapping on Seattle.govJust within the last year the City of Seattle and Seattle Police have developed a whole series of new online tools to improve the effectiveness of crime prevention. There’s now an online tool which allows residents to map almost all the crimes in their neighborhood (domestic violence and a few others are excluded). The map also allows people to actually download and view the actual redacted police report for many of these crimes. Just last week mapping of Police 911 calls debuted on the website, added to the mapping of Seattle Fire 911 calls which has been available for 6 years or more. Also last week a new crime reporting function was added to the Seattle.gov web, so residents can file reports online for minor crimes such as thefts under $500 or car prowls or similar incidents where they don’t need to talk to a police officer.

Seattle departments – including Police, Fire and others, have adapted twitter to rapidly inform residents of incidents as they occur. The Seattle website also includes a series of fifteen interlinked blogs called CityLink. On the Police blog, called spdblotter.seattle.gov, more detail is given on crimes and other incidents which the Police also tweet .

There are many organizations which operate in every neighborhood. Besides Blockwatches, there are district councils, and arts organizations and community development groups, not to mention an active set of privately operated neighborhood blogs which have, in many ways, taken over the functions formerly performed by community newspapers. The City has an index of all these resources on its website, Neighborhoods on the Net.

I think Blockwatches may morph in two ways in the future – first expanding their function and also changing their method of communication to use social media.

In terms of function, traditionally some Blockwatches have morphed from crime prevention to community engagement. They actively advocate for cleaning up derelict properties, eliminating graffiti, calming traffic (adding speed bumps or traffic circles) and of course caring for each other, e.g. checking in on the elderly or disabled.

But the City hasn’t always adopted the power of the Blockwatch movement for other forms of civic engagement. Many City departments go to neighborhoods and hold public meetings to gain input on zoning changes or neighborhood plan updates or changing the configuration of an arterial street to add turning lanes or bike lanes. But those meetings tend to be “one shot” deals or tend to use or create new e-mailing lists. Rarely do the other departments take advantage of the existing power of the organized Blockwatches. And often the City doesn’t actually give feedback to neighborhoods about how their input was used.

In these days of constrained resources, Blockwatches can and should morph from just crime prevention, to community involvement groups – “Citywatches”.

To do this, municipal governments need to find ways to adapt social media to Blockwatches and community engagement.

Facebook has taken the Internet by storm, with over half-a-billion users. It seems to be a natural new way for Blockwatches to post news, communicate and interact both internally, with other Blockwatches and with police departments and other City functions.

But Facebook as a company doesn’t “play nice” with government or other companies, in that it is hard for governments to save Facebook entries and comments, thereby complying with State records retention laws and FOIA laws. Furthermore, it is hard – if not impossible – to create a set of “blockwatch neighbors” separate and distinct from other groups and friends, and keep that group private, only sharing selected updates with other groups or the municipal government.

Facebook’s great advantage for this purpose is that so many people use it – they don’t have to learn or adopt some new tool. Other social media tools also hold promise for the future of Blockwatches and Citywatches. These include, perhaps, Wiki’s for sharing information about neighborhoods, Ideascale or Uservoice tools such as Ideas For Seattle to generate and rank ideas on certain topics, and Twitter.

A common problem – especially with Twitter and Blogs and Facebook – is easily capturing and harvesting comments or tweets so the Blockwatch captain or appropriate City department can adequately respond. Smartphone applications are already used by governments for JAPA (just another pothole application) feedback, but haven’t been widely used in public meetings, e.g. making comments and what is being said or voting during public meetings, which can improve the level of involvement among the audience. Certainly many governments are afraid of being overwhelmed by input which underscores the need for tools or software to harvest and consolidate responses.

Seattle has asked Code for America, the new non-profit founded by Tim O’Reilly, for help in developing a solution to improving Blockwatches via such social media tools, and thereby helping them to evolve into new platforms for civic action and engagement. With some luck, such a solution can be developed and used by many local governments across the nation.

Finally, I will admit and lament that personal interaction among neighbors has declined. The many time pressures on families mean we have less time to simply talk to our neighbors. But all these new smartphone, social media, technology tools can help improve that interaction.
Fundamentally, however they only supplement the face-to-face Blockwatch meeting which builds community and trust, so neighbors truly care about and watch out for each other.

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Filed under 911, Seattle Fire Dept, Seattle Police

- A Cop Killer and Broadband

Officer Tim Brenton, click photo for more information

Officer Tim Brenton

On Friday, November 6th at 1:00 PM, five thousand people gathered in Seattle to grieve for Seattle Police Officer Tim Brenton who was murdered in his police cruiser.  At 3:30 PM the killer was caught, after a week of diligent detective work, and through use of video technology.  This tragic incident illustrates why first responders need improved technology, including a modern 4th generation (4G) wireless network.

How do I make the leap from the heartbreaking death of a police officer to the need for more technology, and, in particular, a high-speed wireless network for first responders?

First, I’ll describe Brenton’s murder. Tim Brenton, a ten-year veteran of Seattle’s Police Department, was training a new officer, Britt Sweeney, on the night of October 31st. They were stopped at the side of a street in Seattle’s Leschi neighborhood, reviewing Britt’s performance in a car stop.

Another vehicle pulled beside them on the left side of the police cruiser, and opened fire on the officers at point blank range. Sweeney, on the cruiser’s driver’s side, ducked down and the bullets grazed her back, but the shots hit Brenton immediately killing him. The murderer backed up his vehicle, and turned down a side street, being careful not to drive in front of the police cruiser.

The murderer knew every police patrol vehicle had a digital video camera, but that it faced forward. He was careful not to come into the camera’s line of sight.

There were very few clues in the case. The wounded Officer Sweeney fired at the fleeing vehicle, but was unable to get a good look or description of it. There were no other witnesses. Despite tips flowing in, there was little information and, frankly, no good leads.

Detectives started to look for video clues. Seattle has very few video cameras observing streets or intersections, and the murder took place in a residential neighborhood. Every police vehicle has a digital video camera, but the cameras only record when the vehicle has its overhead warning lights flashing or when activated by the police officer. The video is saved to a computer hard drive in the vehicle and offloaded wirelessly when the vehicle returns to the precinct station. The video cannot be directly transmitted from the vehicle because no existing City or commercial wireless network has the bandwidth to do so.

The Seattle Police Department went to work, and examined video footage recorded by all vehicles patrolling that area of that City. Miraculously, even though the video cameras face only to the front to capture car stops and officer conversations with the stopped driver, detectives found a Datsun 210 in the background driving by several of the stops made by various police cars that night.

The detectives, unsure if the Datsun was even involved in the murder, but hoping for a break, broadcast the Datsun’s distinct profile and asked for citizen help to find such a vehicle. And, on Friday the 6th, police received a call of a Datsun 210 covered with a tarp in the parking lot of a suburban Seattle apartment building. They responded and when Charles Monfort walked out toward the vehicle, he pulled a gun on the detectives. He was shot and arrested. In his apartment detectives found the murder weapon as well as improvised explosive devices. Montfort has also been linked to a firebombing of Seattle police vehicles on October 22. 

Monfort had a vendetta against police officers, and undoubtedly would have shot more officers if he had not been caught. Finding him was the result of dogged police work, those videos, and a lot of luck.

What does this say about the state of first responder technology?  First, we need more video. Seattle does have two police vehicles which drive the streets with video constantly running, and using license plate recognition looking for stolen vehicles. But every one of more than 300 patrol vehicles has video. Digital video in police vehicles is a great boon to public safety – the video and audio of every car stop is recorded. This helps quickly resolve complaints from the public about police behavior, as well as providing evidence for crimes such as drunk driving.

But perhaps we should be recording more than just car stops, e.g. continuously recording as police vehicles patrol neighborhoods. And certainly we could use more video in high crime streets and other public spaces. The ability of such video cameras to deter and solve crimes is well documented, notably in the London subway bombings.

But Seattle and other cities have been skeptical and slow to adopt it, largely due to concerns about privacy.  In terms of privacy concerns, video cameras should only observe public spaces such as streets or parks. I’m an advocate not just for deploying more video cameras, but for making almost all such video available online for anyone to view, just like traffic cameras are available online.  The video is, after all, of public spaces, and having more eyes watching for crime not only helps solve or prevent that crime, but also provides some oversight of police use of the video.

Next, we badly need high speed, fourth generation (4G) wireless broadband networking for first responders. Congress has set aside spectrum,  and a number of public safety organizations such as APCO and the PSST have been working to build such a network.   Public safety organizations have even developed standards for such a network.  But funding obstacles remain in the way.

With high speed wireless networking, video from field units – not just police but fire, utilities, transportation vehicles – can be transmitted real-time to dispatch centers, to other vehicles and to emergency management centers. Such real-time video gives police and fire commanders, 911 dispatchers and elected officials a view into what is happening in the field, and will result in more rapid resolution of crimes such as Office Tim Brenton’s murder, as well as better deployment of field officers for any violent crime, problems around schools, hazardous materials, disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes and terrorist incidents.

We got lucky solving Officer Tim Brenton’s murder. This incident is a call for action to put better video and wireless technology to work improving public safety.

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Filed under APCO, broadband, PSST, Seattle Police

- Great Recession? Opportunity!

Tech Trends on the Upswing

Tech Trends on the Upswing

In my previous blog entry, I discussed some of the “downswing” trends in IT in local government. This column will be about trends on the upswing – gaining prominence and resources – in cities and counties. Most of this information came from discussions with CIOs of other large cities and counties around the country, held at the Metropolitan Information Exchange (MIX) conference in Albuquerque in September.

On the rise in local government are cloud computing or hosted services, public safety support, geo-location, award-winning websites, social media use (blogging, twitter, Facebook, YouTube), consolidation, hiring chills or freezes, the “greening” of IT and responding to climate change.

MIX members certainly are leaders in online services, as recognized in the Center for Digital Government’s annual best of the web awards. We are all driving more services online, but also struggling to make more data available for transparency and accountability. Those governments receiving awards are doing an exceptional job.

 “Cloud computing” or hosted applications or software-as-a-service (SAAS) are finding fertile ground in government, although only the seeds have been planted – just a few applications are sprouting. Bill Greeves, CIO of Roanoke County, Virginia, has been a leader in this field in government, especially with his Muni Gov 2.0 initiative. Bill is also a fellow blogger here on Digital Communities.

As the budgets of IT departments are cut, they no longer have the staff or resources to support applications, sometimes even mission critical ones. Many of us are therefore hosting new applications such as job application or payroll systems in the cloud. The City of Seattle will probably implement both applicant tracking systems (although with budget constraints, jobs are few and far between!) and customer relationship management systems “in the cloud”. Besides ease of support, placing applications “in the cloud” also results in regular software upgrades and predictable costs.

Most MIX cities and counties are not cutting public safety or fire/emergency medical services departments. The City of Seattle, while cutting over 300 city employees in 2010, is preserving the number of firefighters and increasing the police department by 21 officers.

And support for public safety systems such as computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and records management is growing. A side effect of this growth is geo-location or automated-vehicle-location (AVL). Many local governments have implemented it for fire departments and it is seeing increasing use in police, transportation and utilities. AVL allows dispatch of the closest unit to a request for service, shortening response times. During disasters or major incidents, the incident commander and emergency operations center can quickly see and coordinate the deployment of units from many different disciplines to the scene. As one example, the City of Seattle just implemented a new CAD for Police which includes a mapping component showing not just unit locations, but active calls, waiting calls and completed requests.

Social media are seeing an explosion of use (duh!). Social media include blogging, online video (e.g. YouTube), twitter, mashups (data display on a map), and “friend” sites such as Facebook. Every MIX member is trying to figure out how to use these new technologies but at the same time comply with the web (pun intended) of laws for local government, including records retention and public disclosure while somehow preventing degeneration of public comment into the gutter often found in comments on newspaper articles. The City of Seattle just implementedd a series of social media policies, and is robustly using blogs and Twitter, as well as video and Facebook.

Again, Bill Greeves and the Muni Gov 2.0 crew are actively holding meetings and discussions in Second Life, another use of social media.

Next, I’ll mention climate change. Some amount of debate continues to swirl around this topic – is global warming real or not? Is it caused by humans, or flatulating cows? This whole discussion is actually irrelevant. The fact is the public – and their elected officials – are demanding climate-friendly reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, which, by the way, also reduce our use of and dependence upon foreign oil. Mayor Greg Nickels of Seattle just had the 1000th city (Mesa, Arizona) sign the Mayors’ climate protection agreement, an initiative he started in 2005. Bottom line: climate change is something IT departments need to address, too.

Then there is “green technology”. I’m a notable skeptic that technology can ever been “green” (see my blog entry on “gray technology”) although e-recycling programs like Total Reclaim in Seattle are recycling 99% of TVs and computer monitors. Every MIX member jurisdiction is working on green tech. Some of this is almost inadvertent, e.g. lengthening replacement cycles of desktop and server computers due to budget cuts. But other initiatives are quite proactive such as installing power-management software on desktop computers (e.g. from Verdiem), virtualization, and reducing the use of paper. In the future we will probably demand to know which manufacturers and vendors are kindest to the environment and use the lowest carbon emissions in production of their products.

As Rahm Emanuel has stated “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste“. Those of us who are CIOs in local government are trying to balance reduced budgets, make staffing cuts and yet meet the increasing demands for technology by line departments in our governments. And we’ll continue to share our good ideas through organizations such as MIX, publications like Government Technology and Public CIO magazine, and blogs such as these on Digital Communities.

We won’t waste this crisis!

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Filed under government, green technology, MIX, Seattle Police, web 2.0

- Higher Tech Policing

Dubuque Police Department
Dubuque Police Department

Updated:  18 June 2011
Original Post:  2 August 2009

A long time ago in a city far far away I was a street cop. A police officer working the beat. It wasn’t a large city – Dubuque, Iowa – 65,000 people and probably 60 or 70 policemen. Yes “policeMEN”. The first women were hired into the Dubuque PD while I was there, and I – at 5′ 9″ and 170 pounds – was one of the smallest cops on the force.

In those days, technology was not really part of an officer’s life. Times have changed, they REALLY have changed. The Seattle Police Department has just implemented a new Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system which is fundamentally altering policing at the City of Seattle – the “SPIDER” project. Technology is now – literally – at the right and left hand of virtually every cop – and firefighter and emergency medical tech.

When I was on the street, my primary technology was the radio in my police cruiser. The voice radio was (and still is) the lifeline for public safety officers on the street. But, in the 1970s, when I walked out of the car, I also walked away from that lifeline. We didn’t have handheld or portable radios, nor did cell phones exist. If there was a problem when we were away from the car, we depended upon each other to “drive by” and check on us (and cops still do that), or on a citizen to use a land-line telephone to notify dispatch. That was scary.

Now police officers carry a handheld radio, and a lapel mike, and every Seattle radio has an emergency button which, when pressed, alerts dispatch center that the officer is in trouble. The emergency alert triggers a display of badge number on the dispatch console. The radios can communicate with officers throughout the region. And automatic vehicle location (AVL) shows the location of every police and fire apparatus in the City. All of this tech doesn’t mean policing is easier or safer than it was in the 1970s – on the contrary, there are new issues and dangers, which I’ll mention a little later.

We did reports by hand, on paper. We filled out index cards for car stops. And every call to police/fire emergency was logged on a card with a timestamp. When we wanted to get information about a license plate or driver’s license, the dispatcher looked up the info in a set of file cards or – this was really high tech in the 1970s – typed the request into a teletype machine for someone in some far city (like Des Moines) to look up on their index cards.

Now, things are much more high tech. First, people call 911 for emergencies. 911 is virtually ubiquitous in the United States, but barely existed in the 1970s. The police call-taker immediately sees the ANI/ALI (automatic number identification / automatic location identification) associated with your number. The call taker immediately enters all the information about the call into the Seattle Police Department’s new CAD (software written by Versaterm). [Fires or emergency medical calls are "hot transferred" from a police call-taker to a fire dispatcher, who enters the information into a Seattle Fire CAD, and you can actually view some real-time information about Fire 911 calls online here].

Dispatchers then dispatch the 911 call to an available police unit. An electronic map shows the location of every 911 call which is in-progress or waiting, the locations of police units and their status (free, working a call, etc.). A double click on a map icon brings up information about the call or the unit. Records management (also by Versaterm) is similarly automated, with reports now written electronically on laptop or in-vehicle computers directly by officers. A wide variety of information (e.g. address) is automatically verified, and the report is uploaded wirelessly.

The state-of-the-art in Seattle Police is even more high tech. Every patrol car has a digital video camera; every car stop is recorded, including the audio of the conversation from a wireless mic carried by the officer. Special license-plate-recognition vehicles (wirelessly connected to national databases) cruise the streets looking for parking scofflaws and stolen cars. Officers with BlackBerrys or their in-car vehicles can easily search for online information – a far cry from that teletype machine.

We are actively working on even higher speed wireless networking in the 700 MHz spectrum, which should allow two-way high-quality video transmissions to/from field units, including video from private security cameras in banks and stores. Fire units already carry electronic versions certain sorts of building plans, but in the future those building plans could be quickly updated to show the locations of hazardous materials or the detailed configuration of a school.

I’m certain high-tech has increased public safety through more rapid sharing of information, and has improved communications and therefore officer safety. This comes at a price, of course, and not just in dollars.   I’m not quite sure how dispatchers and police officers and firefighters stay current with the skills required to dispatch, provide policing, fight fires and provide emergency medical, AND also learn all this technology.  It is a challenge!

And officers today face dangers on the street which I never dreamed of in the 1970s – significant drug use, gangs, potential terrorists, and criminals who specialize themselves in using technology for identity theft, stalking, and crimes against children. I’m glad my experience as a police officer is behind me – I’m not smart enough or quick enough on my feet to face the challenges of the street today. But I hope – by continued wise application of technology – we can make cops, firefighters and the people they serve a bit safer.

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Filed under 911, Iowa, radio, Seattle Police

- Awarding the Police

Seattle Police Foundation

Seattle Police Foundation

The Seattle Police Foundation’s annual awards banquet was last night, October 17, 2008. Almost 200 Seattle police officers and civilian employees received awards for excellence, valor and impact.

Speaking of impact, the “technologization” of law enforcement was a thread which ran throughout the evening.

The Seattle Police Foundation was created to seed new programs and encourage innovation in law enforcement. More than 90% of the police department’s official $213 million budget goes to personnel costs. Using those funds, Mayor Greg Nickels and Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske have launched a number of innovations using both technology and community partnerships, but funding for those improvements is still limited.

The Foundation is supported by a number of prominent local people and firms, including James Sinegal, co-founder of Costco, Costco itself, Philips – which provided Heartstart defibrillators in every Seattle police patrol car, and even two Seattle Police detectives, Randall and Pilar Curtis, who contributed more than $10,000 of their personal funds.

Technology was highlighted during the evening in the awards, stories, and video. Here are some examples:
•   SPIDER – Seattle Police Information, Dispatch and Electronic Reporting. This project has already installed a records management system (RMS) which is now used by officers throughout the department to enter reports directly into the system from laptops, vehicle-mounted computers and desktops. It will deliver a new computer-aided-dispatch (CAD) system next year which includes automated vehicle location (AVL) and new uses of geographic information systems. Three civilians and a detective received awards this year relating to their work on SPIDER. And the RMS training team of 30 officers and civilians received an award for their work training the entire department – one of the largest training efforts in the history of the department.
•   VARDA – this technology has actually been around since the 1960s – devices which send a radio signal when an alarm is tripped, a vehicle stolen, or when activated by a human being who is in danger.
•   SeaJIS – the City’s justice integration system initiative. Many cities have such initiatives which attempt to link police, prosecutors and courts to allow seamless flow of information about defendants and cases between the parts of the criminal justice system. In Seattle’s case, SeaJIS also connects to King County’s jail booking system and other outside systems. The project manager received an excellence award for her matrix management (“leading without having direct supervision”) of the work.

Other technologies mentioned last night and used by the department are too numerous to mention, but include BlackBerries, in-car digital video systems, red-light cameras (which have reduced auto accidents but are now in jeopardy due to Initiative 985 on the fall ballot),  and many more. Learn more about the department here

There are some interesting side effects of this wide-ranging use of technology. One is the amount of electricity needed in police vehicles. A typical patrol car is loaded down with radios, data modems, a fixed-mount computer, emergency lights and a variety of other equipment all of which draws power. Finding cars and batteries to support this is a continuing challenge for the City’s Fleets Division.

Another side effect is just all the “stuff” that a typical patrol officer has to carry. When I was a street cop in the mid-1970′s, I carried a weapon, nightstick, handcuffs. Now officers also have handheld radios, cell phones, BlackBerries and laptop computers – almost a walking Radio Shack!

In this article, I’ve emphasized the technology, because I’m a CIO/CTO and that’s the goal of this blog.

But the real purpose of last night was to celebrate the people involved – the officers, the police department civilians, those in City and County government who support them, and the wonderful sponsors who contribute to the Seattle Police Foundation.

In the end, it is not really the software and systems and techie gadgets and devices which keep us safe, but, rather, brave people such as those we honored last night.

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Filed under people, Seattle Police

- Talk Groups will keep You Safe

Public Safety Radio - Click for more info

Public Safety Radio - click for more

The Truth may make you Free, but it is the Talk Groups which keep you Safe.

What the hell is a “talk group”?
Well, it is not the senior citizens who gather at the corner café or feedstore (are my Iowa roots showing?) to discuss the issues of the day? Nope – talk groups are the fundamental element of a public safety voice radio system.
Seattle has five police precincts.  One of them – West – got really busy at about 2:00 PM today.  A bank robbery occurred at the Bank of America branch in the center of downtown. And the West Precinct “talk group” was filled the voices of dozens of police officers and FBI responding, surrounding the building and searching for the suspect, which they’d caught by 2:30.  (Coincidently, at 2:09 PM, an automobile rescue was dispatched to 7700 16th Ave SW, with eight fire units plus police units dispatched – get more details on the City’s website here).

When police and fire departments first started using radio for dispatch and operations in the 1920s, one radio “frequency” was allocated for each precinct or task, such as the West Police Precinct, or a large-scale medic incident such as the auto rescue.  We all know what a radio frequency is – “tune to KJR 950 on your radio dial” – 950 kilohertz that is, although most folks don’t know the “kilohertz” part (and the geeks reading this can get a better explanation in Wikipedia)  .
Public safety departments were assigned similar frequencies.
Using radio for dispatching and operations is really really useful.  So everyone  tarted using it!   Buses and water utilities and taxis and just about any other operation with a mobile workforce.  And, with the advent of cell phones and then wireless data communications such as those offered by the cell phone companies, or wi-fi, the available frequencies rapidly were allocated.  In dense urban areas like Seattle, virtually every kilohertz of radio spectrum is allocated to something, or reserved by FCC for a future use.
In fact, the transition to digital TV which is occurring on February 19, 2009 (see the explanation here) is all about freeing more frequencies for other uses. The FCC has also taken TV stations 70 to 83 (UHF) off the air to free frequencies.

In Seattle, however, we only have about 28 radio frequencies for all City government uses. Yet we have hundreds of police and firefighters and utility workers and others on the street at any given time.  Plus public safety officers from many other jurisdictions come to Seattle to transport prisoners or attend court.  How can we stretch 28 frequencies to cover all those uses?
The answer: “talk groups”. Plus a bit of technology.

Motorola developed a technology called “trunked radio”.  Essentially no radio frequency is ever used every second of the time.  Even during the bank robbery downtown this afternoon, with dozens of officers listening and talking, there were long gaps between transmissions.  Part of this is good training and “radio discipline” by the cops.  Motorola’s system allows each transmission to use any available frequency, not just one.  In this fashion, dozens or hundreds of “talk groups” (like West Police Precinct) can use the same 28 frequencies, all at the same time, without interference and with plenty of spare capacity. Indeed, during most days, there are over 60,000 individual radio transmissions on the Seattle network, but rarely are more than half the 28 available frequencies in use.

The interesting part: this is 1980s technology!  It is 20 years old!  Indeed, these radio systems are based, in part, on the Motorola 6809 chip, developed 30 years ago in 1978, and also used in wonderful machines like the Tandy “Color Computer”.

Are these systems getting old?  You bet, and they’ll need replacing soon.  But for right now, Seattle’s Public Safety Radio system is up and working 99.999% of the time (that is only minutes of downtime a year), a credit not just to solid technology but good maintenance and fast response to problems by the City’s Comm Shop (part of my Department of Information Techology).

This technology – and talk groups like “West Precinct” – help police officers and firefighters keep Seattle safe.

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Filed under radio, Seattle DoIT, Seattle Fire Dept, Seattle Police

- Two Seattle 911 Centers?

Click to see calls to Seattle 911

Click to see calls to Seattle 911

Original post:  18 May 2008
We’ve opened a new fire alarm center (FAC) in Seattle – see yesterday’s blog entry.  This center accepts 911 calls for medical emergencies and fires – anything handled by the Seattle Fire Department.   There is a separate 911 center elsewhere in the City for 911 calls for police service and police dispatching.   How do we manage two separate centers?   The answer:  all 911 calls go to police first, and then, if the situation requires the fire department, the caller is “hot transfered” to the FAC.   “Hot transfer” means the police 911 call-taker stays on the line until the fire call-taker picks up the call.
Gee, this seems quite inefficient – we have two separate groups of folks answering 911 calls, two separate buildings, two separate telephone systems, two separate computer systems to enter the information (“computer-aided dispatch”) and so forth.   Isn’t this much more costly for Seattle taxpayers?
A long time ago, I thought so.   Many cities (e.g. Chicago) have a single 911 center where dispatchers and call takers for all three disciplines (police, fire, emergency medical) work.
But the philosophies and requirements have changed, largely after the San Francisco earthquake of 1989 and that event in New York City / the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.   Now almost every City has a backup 911 center – a separate physical location with a whole set of separate systems.   In most cities, this separate location just sits, unused, most days of the year.  It is only activated for testing and during those very rare occasions where some event makes the primary 911 center unusable.   Such events occur more often than one might think – they could include white power (anthrax) scares or power failures (including failure of backup systems), as well as disasters.
In Seattle we’ve chosen a different – and, in my opinion – wiser route.   Both our 911 centers are active and in use every day, 24 hours a day.   We KNOW all the backup systems work because they are constantly in use – we don’t just test the backup center once a year.   Once again Seattle leads – becoming the City most prepared to deal with a disaster.

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Filed under 911, Seattle Fire Dept, Seattle Police