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Published: Tuesday, 2/20/2007

Public safety outweighs 'hip' for Toledo Wi-Fi

BY JENNI LAIDMAN
BLADE SCIENCE WRITER

Black smoke billows across the Maumee River from a fast-moving factory fire. Toledo firefighters download the factory's floor plan on computers in their vehicles and learn that the blaze is getting closer to where chemicals are stored inside - including one that is highly toxic when burned.

The strategy for battling the blaze and protecting nearby residents shifts with this new information.

It's after midnight when a city police officer signals the rust-mottled, blue Impala to pull over. The driver is flustered, unable to find his wallet. He gives the officer a name and Social Security number.

The officer returns to his cruiser, and types the name into his computer. Up pops the driver's license photo that matches that name. Clearly, the driver is lying.

Of all the potential uses offered for a Wi-Fi network - the purported boost to economic development, the lift to tourism, the general rise in the city's technological hipness quotient - the application that drove Toledo city officials to seek bids for a citywide wireless network is public safety.

Patsy Scott, director of Toledo's department of information and communications technology, said the city has been working on a wireless plan for police operations for at least five years.

"The economic development and keeping the best-and-the-brightest are really important," Ms. Scott said. "But from my perspective, here in the city, public safety issues are paramount.''

Today is the deadline for bidders to respond to Toledo's Request for Proposals for a Wi-Fi network to cover the city's 88 square miles. If the bidding goes the way the city hopes, residents all over town will have access to high-speed Wi-Fi service for a price, low-income residents will have discounted Internet service, and police, firefighters and other city agencies will have free Wi-Fi service.

Already, there are laptops in Toledo police cruisers. Ms. Scott said the city has installed some 20 to 30 Wi-Fi antennas around town, many near school buildings. These antennas are not yet operational. Even when they are, the so-called "hot spot" signal they provide serves only a few hundred yards.

But the proposed Wi-Fi network would be like a series of interlocking hot spots, allowing a cruiser speeding at 60 mph to maintain continuous wireless communication.

While lots of the proposed uses of Wi-Fi are big and flashy, Toledo Police Chief Mike Navarre seeks an application that every officer can use every day.

"I would like to be able to have officers get rid of their pad of reports and ink pens and do all their reports on the computer, and then transmit those reports instantaneously to all the places they need to go,'' he said.

Filing reports in the field saves time, the chief said, and keeps officers visible on the street throughout the day. "I firmly believe the future of law enforcement is in science and technology.''

Even the schools are tied into this wireless future, so if a gunman walks through the halls of an elementary school, police racing to the scene can watch him scuttle down empty hallways via video streaming into their cruisers.

In Toledo, surveillance cameras in new Toledo Public schools will be accessible to a city Wi-Fi network, Chief Navarre said. But bank cameras, for example, would have to be added.

The fact is, municipalities are finding dozens of uses from Wi-Fi service beyond even police and fire services.

In Corpus Christi, emergency rooms doctors can see what paramedics see at the scene of an emergency via a Wi-Fi net.

"The impact is huge. Now I get a medical history. I can prescribe. I can do the right treatment with the doctor looking right over my shoulder,'' said Leonard Scott, manager of the municipal information systems business unit for the 277,000-resident Gulf Coast city.

Corpus Christi got its start in wireless when it began wireless meter reading about four years ago. Folks from the technology giant, Intel, heard about what they were doing and asked to come for a visit.

"It was part of our awakening,'' Mr. Scott said. "We ferried them around and [they said], 'My God! Do you realize - and again this was three and a half, four years ago - you have the largest metro Wi-Fi system in the world? We said, 'No.' They said 'This is the direction the world is going to go.'

"It was kind of like finding out you have gold buried under your house,'' Mr. Scott said.

Since then, the city has worked with a number of high-tech companies, pioneering many of the applications other cities are adopting.

Like Toledo, Milpitas, Calif., a city of about 65,000 people north of San Jose, developed Wi-Fi to enhance public safety. Wi-Fi - combined with a dispatching system that determines not only which patrol vehicle is closer to an emergency, but which can get there faster - has shaved response times by as much as a minute, said Bill Marion, the city's information service director.

He relates the story of a call about a child choking:

"As soon as the dispatcher takes the call, it pops up on the screen and everyone in the field sees it. And even before it's assigned, they start heading in that direction anyway. A police officer was there in 90 seconds and started [cardiopulmonary resuscitation]. Paramedics were there in two and a half minutes. In less than five minutes, they were on their way to the hospital.''

For almost every city, using Wi-Fi has brought savings on cell phone bills because information is accessible from the Internet in the field. In Corpus Christi, the savings amounted to about $500,000.

Communities also garner fuel savings because employees such as building inspectors, public health nurses, and parks and streets workers can receive instructions in the field.

But the adoption of Wi-Fi systems is not without a learning curve. In Corpus Christi, they're still building the database of building floor plans for the fire department to access online.

"We haven't really gotten there yet,'' said Rick Trevino, assistant fire chief for Corpus Christi. "We're having people go out in the field, go out to different target hazards, and they actually do a drawing of the building and put it into computers."

Mr. Trevino said city officials are "still working out a lot of kinks - a lot of it is learn on your own about what it can do.

"It's fairly new and we don't have anybody to contact in other cities," he added. "We're kind of like the guinea pig. The learning curve has been pretty frustrating, but it's been very beneficial to us as well."

Contact Jenni Laidman at:

jenni@theblade.com or

419-724-6507.



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