Has a Silicon Valley start-up cost-efficiently solved the seemingly intractable problem of achieving interoperability for first responders?
When former British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited the Foothill-De Anza Community College District in the heart of Silicon Valley for a three-night speaking engagement last March, a security contingent made up of federal agencies and Scotland Yard needed to coordinate their efforts to keep him safe. There was legitimate cause for concern. In 2005, former Secretary of State Colin Powell visited De Anza College and was met by violent protesters angered over his role in selling the Iraq War.
As incident commander, it was Foothill-De Anza Chief of Police Ron Levine’s job to manage the interagency security operation. His biggest challenge was that each agency used a different radio system—a potential communications nightmare. But a new software platform and application that the Foothill-De Anza Community College District Police Department was beta testing solved the problem. It allowed different agencies to seamlessly share encrypted voice, text, video, and location information across smartphones over commercial wireless networks—the holy grail of interoperable communications since 9-11.
The software application, called Alert and Respond, was developed by Covia Labs. First responders simply need to download the Connector software platform and Alert and Respond application onto their device. Device integration is as easy as an administrator sending operation partners an e-mail or text message invite with the needed hyperlink to the Web site where they can download the Connector platform and the Alert and Respond application. Devices must run on iOS, Android, or Windows Mobile operating systems for smartphones and Windows, Linux, and OS/X operating systems for computers, to work properly.
Without Covia’s software, Levine would have had to pass out radios to his partners, and he would have had to dial a London number to speak with Scotland Yard officials who were within eyesight.
“We will assimilate you; resistance is futile,” jokes Covia Labs CEO David Kahn, dropping a Star Trek reference to explain the software. “All devices become part of a collective whole with awesome aggregate power.”
All Levine had to do was collect security partners’ e-mail addresses or smartphone numbers and then push out an invitation for them to join. “That was the easiest piece of the operation,” he says. “We had done a lot of logistics up front regarding the visit. So the [planning] was much more difficult than rolling out the technology.”
Once connected, the first preventers had a powerful multimedia communications tool in their hands. Levine’s officers snapped digital photos of the protesters and quickly sent them to operation participants. “We were able to see that photo virtually instantaneously, and it was geo-tagged so we were able to see with GPS-accuracy where that photo was taken,” he says. “We had an excellent idea of the number of protesters, what their message was, and their exact location.”
This was a dramatic upgrade from the past when officers would take photos of protests with their patrol cameras and then have to find a computer, upload the pictures, and distribute them to their colleagues via e-mail.
The photos gave the operations center the ability to quickly assess the mood of the crowd, and that allowed Levine to fine- tune the level of security, as warranted, to save taxpayer money. For example, Levine had crowd control units on standby. “We weren’t going to have a situation that developed into a riot like we had in a previous visit,” he says. However, once photos of the protesters convinced Levine that the protests would be peaceful, he “was able to save my agency thousands and thousands of dollars by releasing the crowd control unit early,” he says.
On top of making interoperable communications easy and cost-effective, Covia’s software showcased other capabilities valuable to security and first responders. For example, Alert and Respond gave Levine the ability to track all his officers and partners in real time during the operation using “Blue Force Tracking,” which leverages the phone’s GPS to display “friendlies” on a virtual map for the incident commander.
“In the past, we would have to ask people individually where they were,” explains Levine. “Obviously if they moved, we would have no knowledge. But having the Blue Force Tracking, we were able to monitor their exact location, virtually instantaneously.”
Another benefit is U.S. Department of Defense-grade encryption. Once an invitation is accepted and Covia’s Connector is installed on the smartphone, communications between authorized devices are protected by AES 256-bit encryption. The software allows communications to play in a “secure sandbox,” says Kahn.
It’s also scalable. “It’s something we could use for truly a two-person operation all the way up to multiple person, multiple agency operations,” says Levine. “I think it’s going to be something that law enforcement and first responders are going to find extremely valuable moving forward.”
The software geotags and archives the voice communication, which can be retrieved at any time. “If the end user didn’t understand you and wants to listen to that message again, they can play it back,” he said. For devices, like the iPhone, that do not have push-to-talk capability built in, Alert and Respond generates soft keys on the smartphones’ screen that provide that functionality.
Levine also likes one thing the software doesn’t do—it doesn’t remain active after the event. “The beauty of Alert and Respond is that once the operation is over, or if the unit is no longer part of the operation, we can cut them off,” he says. This gives the incident commander absolute control over what information is shared during an operation and peace of mind that when it’s finished, former partners don’t have access to his police department’s communications.
The Blair visit, says Levine, demonstrated that Alert and Respond is a game- changing technology. “We had a major challenge we were able to overcome with sharing communications, data, photos, and Blue Force Tracking with Alert and Respond because it was not dependent on any sort of radio system,” he says.
In the near future, Covia’s plan is to use its Connector software to sync the next generation of Long Term Evolution (LTE) smartphones—which can send and receive more data faster over cellular networks—with Project 25 radios, which meet certain operating standards and are more reliable in crisis situations, via a WiFi or Bluetooth connection. In November, the company delivered its plan to the Department of Homeland Security, which had awarded it a $100,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant to study first-responder interoperable communications.
Covia says that connecting these two devices via its Connector will use each technology’s strengths to maintain first-responder connectivity in difficult environments, such as a forest fire or the aftermath of a natural disaster, when cellular infrastructure is lacking or damaged.