Government Technology

Washington Wi-Fi

December 4, 2004 By

Yakima County, located east of Washington's Cascade Mountains, spans more than 4,000 square miles, much of which are rural and agricultural. Because of proximity to the Canadian border, Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean, smuggling routes cut through several Washington counties, including Yakima. Those counties have been designated high-intensity drug trafficking areas (HIDTA) by the federal government.

For several years, Yakima County has run a 650-square-mile Wi-Fi network that enables data sharing between Lower Yakima Valley and east valley law enforcement agencies. The network allows the agencies to quickly pull information, such as mug shots and traffic reports, from other departments' records management systems in a cost-efficient manner.

"It's a great way to communicate between departments," said Kelly Rosenow, chief of the Toppenish Police Department. "We can access the stuff from the Yakima County sheriff's department, and they can access our files from their patrol cars."

Several federal agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, can also access data through the Wi-Fi network using passwords.

"They can't do any modification," said Rosenow. "But they can go in through a password and look up people's names, mug shots and stuff like that."

Pragmatic Start

Though the Wi-Fi network has benefited law enforcement agencies in many ways since it was deployed, it was installed for more pragmatic reasons.

"The public safety network got started because we had a very expensive telephonic network that was costing us a fortune," said George Helton, senior director of technology services for Yakima County.

"The question was asked, 'Can we do it another way?'" he said. "We could put up this public safety network and provide coverage, do some mobile work with it, and it wouldn't cost us any more than our current network does. In fact, if we got it up right, we might even operate it for less."

The county designed an 802.11b network using a series of radios and antennas with five backbone sites and approximately 30 Cisco Aironet wireless bridges.

"It originally was conceived as a data network -- a point-to-point data network to tie all the police departments back to the county law and justice system," said Helton. "That's what it was originally conceived of. Then we put out some omnis [omni-directional antennas] to see how it would work, and it worked very, very well."

Since the original deployment, Helton said many more antennas have been added, allowing three cities in the lower valley to use the Wi-Fi network to access data from their patrol cars.

The sheriff's patrol cars, however, can't use the network's wireless capabilities to access the county's network. Instead they use general packet radio service (GPRS).

"The public safety network only covers 650 square miles," said Helton. "Our county is many, many thousands of square miles, so the Sheriff's Office is on GPRS because they need data coverage from one end of the county to the other.

"They need to be able to be way out in the sticks and get data," he said. "The network is not large enough to cover all those areas yet."

GPRS gives sheriff's deputies mobile access to their system, which is connected wirelessly on the back end to police departments on the public safety network via the Buena precinct in the lower valley and the Terrace Heights precinct in the east valley.

"Overall, the county's wireless has been a huge benefit for us," said Dave Thompson, chief criminal deputy for the Yakima Sheriff's Office, explaining that using the network for data exchange has saved them the ongoing costs of wiring the precincts telephonically to exchange data. "There's huge cost-savings."

Continuing Challenges

Yakima County's flat valley floor makes such a long-range Wi-Fi network feasible, Helton

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