Even before the events of Sept. 11, 2001, public safety and transportation agencies of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area came to the realization that the many voice and data systems run by local, federal, and state governments needed a way to share communications in a seamless fashion.

For outsiders, D.C. is the nation's capital, with the White House, Congress, monuments and museums. To the millions of people living in the area, the District of Columbia and the states of Maryland and Virginia are linked together by I-495 and other multi-lane highways supporting hundreds of thousands of cars moving across the region, with traffic surges in the morning and evening hours. Rush hour in the D.C. area is a misnomer, since the surge of commuter vehicles can last anywhere from two to four hours long. Add a multi-car accident and traffic quickly slows to a crawl.

In the recent past, if a motorist had a breakdown on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge spanning the Potomac between Maryland and Virginia, the responding transportation, public safety and law enforcement agencies from either side of the river could not communicate directly with each other. For public safety organizations trying to coordinate responses to major events, the lack of a clear communication channel can cost lives and resources.

A lack of guidelines and standards for public safety and transportation communication haven't helped matters. Local, state and federal agencies have all invested in systems that do not “play well” together. These existing systems cannot be simply scrapped and replaced due to cost considerations and are likely to remain in service for decades before being replaced.

Recent events, such as the attack on the Pentagon and the 2002 “D.C. sniper” rampage, have served only to underline the necessity and urgency to build an interoperability infrastructure between public safety organizations in the region.

Can't we all just get along?

The Capital Wireless Integration Network — CapWIN — project was launched in late 1999, stimulated in part by an attempted suicide jumper incident on the Wilson Bridge that snarled regional traffic for the better part of a day. Public safety responders from both sides of the bridge did not have a clear and efficient way to communicate.

The Maryland State Highway Administration and the Virginia Department of Transportation provided initial organization funding to the University of Maryland Center for Advanced Transportation Technology for a one-year strategic planning effort with an alphabet soup of state and federal agencies as sponsors.

Higher education is also playing a role, with the University of Virginia and George Mason University providing expertise.

Getting all participants involved in an organized fashion to work together was the first order of business. UMD-CATT focused on building an institutional infrastructure for participants and providing a road map for implementing, piloting, and ultimately deploying the project into an operational form. CapWIN would be built on a philosophy of open architectural standards, partnerships, and sharing vital resources.

When completed, CapWIN will integrate transportation and public safety data and voice communication systems in two states and the District of Columbia and will be the first multi-state transportation and public safety integrated wireless network in the United States.

CapWIN completed its planning effort in 2001, led by UMD-CATT working with the International Chiefs of Police, University of Virginia, and George Mason University, on behalf of the CapWIN project sponsors and partners. The effort generated an initial organizational structure for the CapWIN project, initial funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation and National Institute of Justice, a pilot project focusing around the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to demonstrate technology, and an RFP for implementation of the network.

In early 2001, the initial pilot of the CapWIN system was launched around one of the Washington area's major traffic hot spots: the Wilson Bridge. A number of mobile computer vendors donated equipment to aid the demonstration with a total of 22 computers installed in freeway service patrol vehicles, law enforcement vehicles, and fire service vehicles of 10 different agencies.

The City of Alexandria Police Department provided the initial glue for the system, agreeing to allow the use of their message switch and mobile client software for the demonstration; the department had a mobile computing network in operation.

Trial configurations used off the shelf equipment, including Pentium-class ruggedized laptop PCs running Windows and CDPD cellular modems for data rates of 19.2 Kbps. Since the applications involved were all text-based messaging and database interfacing, bandwidth is sufficient.

From RFP to implementation

Data from the participating groups was collected and melded together throughout the trial and combine with other research including a nation-wide “Best Practices” study with the final work culminating in the release of the CapWIN RFP from the University of Maryland in March 2001. Initial vendor responses were received in July 2001 and extensively reviewed and evaluated by CapWIN's Technical Working Group with IBM selected as the primary contractor.

Phase One of the CapWIN project defines three primary tasks to be completed and focuses on data transmission between agencies.

According to Mike Hill, CapWIN's director of field operations, the project was first started to work on voice interoperability in the region, but ended up focusing on data for the first phase. Task One includes providing mobile computing around a CapWIN “standard” for agencies in the Washington Metro area that didn't have them, mobile access to police data bases in Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. as well as the FBI, and incident management support functions. Incident management support functions documents the agencies and units on scene, when they arrived and departed, and so forth.

Planning and design for mobile access to traffic management centers in Virginia and Maryland as well as access to hazardous materials information through the CHEMTREC Center is the charge of Task Two. Finally, Task Three is to design a standard interface to CapWIN for mobile computing systems as well as a proof-of-concept demonstration of an interface to an existing mobile computing system in the Washington Metro area. By November 2003, all three tasks under Phase One should be completed and there is sufficient funding for CapWIN to operate through April 2004.

According to Hill, a total of 10 to 12 existing different mobile data systems are used by current CapWIN participants, most of them with law enforcement agencies. CapWIN's interoperability with other disparate wireless mobile data systems is best described as a communications bridge. A non-compatible system will operate a message gateway process that communicates between it and a centralized CapWIN server hosting a global directory. CapWIN will process messages into a compatible format and forward them along to the appropriate place, either to a CapWIN user or onto another gateway to another system. The message gateway enables existing mobile data systems in the region to communicate among all agencies, as well as allowing car-to-car direct messaging between CapWIN mobile computers and mobile computers using a different vendor's message switching system.

A switching function provides both connectivity and required text-based interfaces to area law enforcement databases. Other features include audit systems to permit the retrieval of both ad-hoc and sustaining reports, retrieval of single or multiple messages that may or may not relate to a single/multiple event(s) or incidents involving single or multiple organizations. In other words, reports will be generated on just about any significant key for messages transmitted through the system.

The primary CapWIN infrastructure is located in an office park complex in Greenbelt, Maryland; CapWIN had outgrown its original space at the University of Maryland and relocated in early 2003. A need for redundancy within the system was recognized and a secondary server will be established in Virginia. While the final details of how agencies connect into CapWIN are being finalized, it is likely dedicated T1 leased lines will be used for security reasons in lieu of stock Internet connections.

Future phases and operations

Once implemented, CapWIN functionality and interfaces will be added in at least two future phases with an impressive and challenging list of features. Under Phase Two, automatic vehicle location, including two-way AVL and instant messaging, is at the top of the list, along with interfaces to Computer Aided Dispatch systems in the area, more interfaces to existing mobile data systems, incident resource tracking, and an emergency contact list. Also slated on the list is the application of voice recognition capability for mobile client software, a most useful feature if one stops to consider the utility of “hands off” in a moving vehicle with a single driver.

Phase Three adds access to the FBI's NCIC 2000 national crime database, interfaces to stolen auto and pawnshop databases, as well as adding on more interfaces to existing mobile data systems. Video to and from field units is listed and will likely be one of the more significant technical challenges, given the expense and bandwidth necessary. Detailed mapping will be provided as will traffic congestion data.

CapWIN's planners and participants have designed the project to be used as a model for multi-agency interoperation that can be replicated in other areas of the United States and other countries.

It will also serve in initiating discussion in solving existing interoperability problems, develop requirements for future mobile data applications for transportation and public safety, and identify the appropriate technology and standards for integrating this technology into existing public safety and transportation agencies.

“Our hope is that we drive vendors to look at connectivity,” said Hill, “IBM will publish an API for vendor gateways [as a part of the CapWIN project].”

He went on to say that with 18,000 law enforcement agencies coming to the market place as one, vendors would have to take steps to provide for interoperability. Hill also said CapWIN would likely evolve into a subscription-based fee service now that the governance issues have been worked out.