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Wireless When You Need It

Mobile cell towers, handsets on standby, and companies’ dedicated disaster response teams can help your agency stay connected.

January 01, 2009  |  by - Also by this author

Handheld Communication

Mobile satellite coverage centers can't solve all law enforcement communications problems. Sometimes an agency just needs more cell phones. These could be for additional officers called in to help respond to a disaster, or even for a special event such as a parade that warrants additional personnel. But it doesn't make sense to pay for a phone year-round if it's only going to be used once in a while.

This is why many agencies use programs that allow them to purchase a set number of phones and keep them in a suspended mode until they're needed. Once reactivated, each phone will have all of the features and capabilities selected during the set-up process. It could be just a standard voice cell phone, or could transmit XMS or data. And there's no need to wait for them to be shipped.

"Our ERT Go Kits come in ruggedized military cargo cases, typically yellow so it's easy for the agency to find them when needed," says Linn. "Agencies pay a nominal fee to keep those phone numbers reserved so that they can publish those numbers in their emergency operations center documents and their business continuity documents."

But you don't need a kit to have phones on standby for an emergency. In fact, you don't even need any particular phone.

"We try to keep the program as flexible and as inexpensive as possible," says Black of AT&T's voluntary spend program (VSP). "We have a lot of agencies that use phones that have been turned in or traded in as emergency phones. We encourage use of old ones you have."

Such a service is valuable for any police department. But it especially makes sense for those agencies that routinely need additional phones for short periods of time throughout the year.

"Because the California Department of Forestry can count on wildfires every year, they have emergency phones ready to go," says Verizon spokesperson Ken Muché. But just because an agency has a certain number of emergency phones set up doesn't mean they can't request more when they're needed. "In the case of last year, there were so many fires that were so widespread that we had to roll out more to them," says Muché. Wireless carriers will work with agencies to provide whatever they can to help you do your job.

In addition to emergency phones, platforms that provide Internet-type functions on Blackberrys and smart phones can assist agencies that have lost cell communications and Internet access. AT&T provides a continuity of operations (COOP) platform that uses a third-party application to put a server into the network. You can send messages from this server-based PDA to all other connected users on their PDAs without touching the Internet. Another AT&T application is a collaboration solution that uses LOTUS nodes or Microsoft Sharepoint to transmit IP data via PDA across different jurisdictions. Because IP data is universal, this is a way to get around the issue of radio interoperability.

Planning Ahead

No law enforcement agency can plan for every eventuality. But ideally, yours should have a detailed plan for whom to contact in an emergency and know what information needs to be communicated. This includes contacting all other surrounding law enforcement agencies in your area and your agency's wireless provider. All of you should be on the same page when it comes to where COWs and COLTs will be set up during a crisis.

Funding must also be factored into the planning process. Consider researching grants to cover the costs of equipment and services. And if your agency must respond to a declared disaster, you may be eligible to be reimbursed by FEMA for communications expenditures. If you're aware of the requirements ahead of time, you won't have to scramble to apply for compensation when a major incident occurs.

Your wireless carrier can also work with you to determine what type of phones you need, what services you'd like to have, and how many you want to have on hand for an emergency. You can also determine whether you would request a SatCOLT or COW for certain events or incidents, and whether you're interested in leasing one or more.

"We have working relationships with various law enforcement agencies, and have contingency plans," says Verizon's Muché. "Should there be a widespread natural or manmade disaster and networks go down, there's a process for bringing us into the information loop, working with them to get clearance."

If nothing else, set up a meeting with your wireless carrier. What have you got to lose?

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