Watch any crime drama on television these days and you’ll see detectives and special agents relying on smartphones and high-tech applications for their voice and data communications. But the reality is a bit different, says David Kahn, CEO of software developer Covia Labs.

“The reality is that when most public-safety people are using a smartphone to help them do their jobs, they’re using the same commercial applications, like Google Maps, that you and I are using,” Kahn said. “They’re not yet using software systems that were designed for the public-safety sector itself.”

The company, which was launched two-and-a-half years ago, is trying to do something about that. It has developed an interoperability software platform dubbed Covia Connector that can be installed on a variety of disparate devices, including cellular phones, cameras and land-mobile radios. The platform allows such devices to run a plethora of situational-awareness applications designed for the military and public-safety sectors that are contained in the company’s Connected Applications suite.

The platform and applications suite were beta-tested earlier this year at Foothill DeAnza Community College in Los Altos Hills, Calif., which serves about 43,000 students per quarter. Indeed, it could be argued that it was the ultimate test, as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was visiting the campus and a large turnout of protestors was expected. During Blair’s visit, campus police was able to share data — primarily text messages and geo-tagged photos of the protestors — in real time with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, which was providing support, as well as with the FBI, the Secret Service and Scotland Yard, according to Chief Ronald Levine.

“It also gave us the ability of Blue Force Tracking, which we don’t have on our current VHF radio system,” Levine said. Blue Force Tracking is a GPS-driven technology developed for the military that provides a map display of friendly and hostile forces. “It let us keep track of where our personnel were at any given time during the operation.”

The ability to share the data in real time was quite important, Levine said.

“We were dealing with a fluid situation,” Levine said. “We weren’t sure of the number of protestors, their location or what their tactics were going to be. We were able to photograph the protestors and share that information across our department and other law-enforcement agencies that were involved in the operation. That’s really important, because if we aren’t able to share the information in a timely fashion, that becomes a real problem.”

Previously, campus police personnel would have to shoot the image with a digital camera, drive back to the command center, download the photos and then e-mail them. Using Covia’s solution, all they had to do during Blair’s visit was take a digital photo using a smartphone camera and then immediately transmit it to anyone who had the appropriate app installed on their device.

Installing the app on the devices of visiting law-enforcement personnel was equally simple and, more importantly, quick, Levine said. Campus police would send an e-mail and the recipient would click on the embedded link, which would then launch the installation. Once the app was installed, it provided a secure connection to any other device enabled with the app.

“This completely bridges the interoperability piece,” Levine said. “Once they download the app, they’re instantly in the operation. We don’t have to worry about who’s on UHF, who’s on VHF, who’s got this or who’s got that. If you have a smartphone, it works.”

The app also provides push-to-talk communications between devices, even smartphones, and all of the transmissions can be archived, which is a great tool, according to Levine.

“If someone sent me a message, as the operation or incident commander, and I didn’t quite understand what they said, I can play it back,” Levine said. “That’s a really important feature. When you’re dealing with protests, it’s going to be noisy wherever the person is at, and unless you have noise-cancelling technology on your radio, it’s going to be difficult to hear. So, if there are a lot of people screaming in the background, instead of asking them to repeat the message, you can listen to it again.”

Levine said that the smartphone does not have to have PTT functionality because it is provided by the app. He described the audio quality of the PTT transmission as “adequate,” given the small microphones and speakers used in smartphones. He also said that there is some possibility of transmission delay.

“It’s not as quick as a standard two-way radio, which is virtually instantaneous, but our experience is that the delay isn’t more than two seconds,” Levine said. “This tool is not a replacement for standard two-way radio communications, for urgent communications. This is absolutely a secondary tool.”

According to Levine, the app can be configured with pre-defined profiles and criteria that can be used to limit user access to certain types of data. At the end of the operation, users simply delete the app. If they forget to do so, campus police can turn off the app.

Some might wonder how a community college became the beta-test site for Covia’s solution, but Levine had a ready answer.

“I’m a bit of an anomaly, a police chief who understands technology — I was an engineer for several years,” Levine said. “When I see something that’s really cool and useful for law-enforcement, especially for a college campus, I’m the first one in line, saying, ‘Can we work with you on this?’”

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