The agents responded to more than 3,000 human and wildlife conflicts last year and have more than 300,000 interactions with the public annually, many out in the field. "Most everybody they run into out in the woods has a weapon," Capt. John Broome says. "And the officers don't have backup two blocks away."
For the past couple of years, many of the department's 140 enforcement officers have used Cellular Digital Packet Data service from AT&T Wireless to send messages from the field using terminals in their cars. But CDPD service has its limitations. It's slow, operating at speeds of around 19.2 Kbps, and the coverage provided by AT&T Wireless, which was acquired by Cingular Wireless last month, was limited, so only around 80 agents could use it.
When AT&T Wireless said late last year that it planned to phase out CDPD service in favor of a faster, third-generation wireless data service, officers at the department knew it was time for a technology upgrade. "Prior to this, many of our officers communicated by a voice-radio system or by telephone. And when they had to do a report, they'd drive to one of our offices," Broome says. "That could take an hour or more, since some of them have huge geographical areas to cover."
Dell laptops with high-speed wireless services save each wildlife-enforcement agent about two hours a day.
Today, all but four of the officers have wireless data-communications systems in their cars; those four work in areas that don't get strong enough signals. For the rest, the technology has changed the way they do much of their job. Many write and file reports from the field, eliminating long trips back to the office.
"The use of computers with the wireless capability has proven to be one of the best tools our officers have," Chief Bruce Bjork says. "It allows them to complete their reports and forward them to their supervisors and courts with less effort and in a more timely fashion." The department estimates that the new technology saves each officer about two hours a day.
One more important benefit to the system: It improves safety. Using GPS, mapping software, and wireless connectivity, the department has a better idea of exactly where officers are and what they're doing, Broome says. That's no small matter out in the wild.