Walk On The Wireless Side

High-Speed wireless access keeps Washington Fish and Wildlife agents safe in the field and lets them do their jobs more efficiently
Enforcement officers at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have a dangerous job. They patrol more than 71,000 square miles of forests and streams throughout the state, checking to make sure hunters, fishermen, and construction workers are complying with the laws designed to protect the habitats of hundreds of species of fish and wildlife. A wireless-technology upgrade now lets them do their jobs more quickly, effectively, and safely than in the past.

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.

Dell laptops with high-speed wireless services save each wildlife-enforcement agent about two hours a day.
The department got a federal grant of $546,750 and more than $180,000 in matching money from the state to equip the agents, who have full law-enforcement authority, with Dell laptop computers, global-positioning systems, mapping software, and digital cameras. It also signed up for high-speed wireless-data services from AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless and uses NetMotion Wireless Inc.'s Mobility software to provide a VPN that encrypts signals and manages network access and wireless connections as officers roam from one area to another. The wireless services provide data speeds ranging from 30 Kbps to 50 Kbps, depending on signal strength, and give the department better coverage throughout the state, Broome says.

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.

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