Tech Upgrade Helps Protect Wildlife - InformationWeek

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10/28/2004
04:04 PM
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Tech Upgrade Helps Protect Wildlife

Washington wildlife enforcement agents use new in-car computers and high-speed wireless data services to protect the state's fish and animals.

Enforcement officers at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have a dangerous job. They patrol 800,000 acres 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 is helping them do their job more quickly, effectively, and safely than in the past.

The enforcement 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."

The officers are no strangers to technology. For the past couple of years, many of the department's 140 enforcement officers have used a Cellular Digital Packet Data service from AT&T Wireless to send messages from the field using terminals in their cars. But the 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 on Oct. 27, was limited, so only around 80 enforcement agents could use it.

When AT&T Wireless said in late 2003 that it planned to phase out the 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."

The department got a federal grant of $546,750 and more than $180,000 in matching money from the state to equip the enforcement 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, using NetMotion Wireless Inc.'s Mobility software to provide a VPN that encrypts signals and manages network access and the wireless connections as officers roam from one area to another. The wireless services provide data speeds ranging from 200 Kbps to 500 Kbps, depending on signal strength, and give the department better coverage throughout the state.

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 are writing and filing 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. This results in a significant increase in officers' productive time." The department estimates that the technology saves each officer around two hours a day.

The system also improves safety, Broome says. Using the global positioning system, mapping software, and wireless connectivity, the department has a better idea of exactly where the officers are and what they're doing. The officers are also using the system to send photos and reports to prosecutors, who can provide quick advice on whether a violation that merits an arrest is taking place. It also lets officers wirelessly access a variety of state and national databases from the road so they can quickly check on the status of hunting and fishing licenses or see if there are arrest warrants pending for those they meet in the woods.

"The technology has helped us pinpoint locations where possible violations are taking place," Broome says. "And the improved communication lets us work better with people in other agencies when, for example, our officers are called on to help evacuate certain neighborhoods during a fire. This technology is really helping our officers do a better job."

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