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Tech Tweak

January 30, 2006 By

About five years ago, the Flower Mound, Texas, Police Department moved into its new digs -- a renovated grocery store.

To construct a new building or move into a newer one would cost money the department didn't have, so the grocery store became the department's new home. Officers soon discovered a problem: The building's roof was largely renovated with 2-inch steel, which made communicating via handheld radios on the 800 MHz radio system less than stellar.

"Big, giant steel roofs and handheld radios don't mix. The signal is dead,"said Capt. Byron Lake of the Flower Mound Police Department.

The police department explored various options, including mounting an internal antenna to bypass the steel roof. But any option would have been too expensive, like the $200,000 it would have cost for that internal antenna. The police department turned to the Flower Mound Department of Information Services, and its director, Dustin Malcom, for help.

"We began looking at a way to, instead of having them using their handhelds while they're in the station, use their computers to listen and respond to calls while inside the station," Malcom said.

Successful Experiment

Two years of experimentation and tweaking voice-conferencing software resulted in a solution that bypasses the radios, and allows officers to monitor radio and TV transmissions through a computer. "Essentially we are voice conferencing with different analog radio devices," Malcom said. "Ordinarily you'd voice conference with a person, but we've altered the way the voice-conference software works and the way the analog system works, and made it so that you actually conference with a radio, TV or handheld radio -- or anything that's an analog audio signal."

This means the 67 officers on the force can listen to everything that goes out over the 800 MHz radio system and respond to calls from dispatch by listening to the computer. They can also tap into CNN, MSNBC or the local television station, TXCN.

"If we have a regional or national incident, they can have constant radio feeds to their computer no matter where they are, so they don't have to go to a TV, they don't have to go to a radio, it's already coming over their computer," Malcom said. "You may have one officer listening to TXCN or another officer listening to CNN."

And Lake said officers don't lose connectivity with what's going on. "Any officer can be sitting at a station in the building, working on reports and whatever they're doing, and picking (the signal) up off their computers," he said. "I can be sitting at home, pull up my laptop, click on and monitor all the radio traffic off my computer."

Malcom began the process by simply finding a way to use handhelds effectively in the station, but began to uncover other possibilities along the way. "Once we figured out how to do that, it opened up all the doors we didn't realize we were about to open, with the ability to actually conference a variety of different radio sources -- either national or local."

The project is still in testing, and it will be a long time before that phase is finished. Once it is, however, Malcom envisions a system whereby officers can listen to radio reports from a variety of sources, and also communicate with one another via the computer. "That's the part that's still in testing. There are a lot of tweaks going on there as well, but that's the part that's so revolutionary -- that you can, using a computer, talk to somebody in the field who's on a radio."

Lake said the long-term plan is to extend the capability to each squad car as a radio system backup. "In the field, we hope it's going to help us in low-lying areas where we

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