The Allen County (Ohio) Sheriff’s Department announced today that it installed Columbitech’s mobile VPN solution to support session-persistent applications during mission-critical communications, said Asa Holmstrom, the company’s president.

The solution consists of a software suite that rides on mobile devices and connects to a VPN server at the customer premises, Holmstrom said. An encrypted tunnel carries communications to let mobile users of laptops or PDAs access any data as if the device was connected to a wired network. The security application complies with the Transport Layer Security, or TLS, protocol and the Department of Defense’s FIPS 140-2 standard, she said.

The solution also offers what Holmstrom calls a session-resume feature, where mobile users’ applications stay live even if they move in and out of a coverage area. For security reasons, the software can be configured to limit how many minutes a user can be offline and will then automatically cancel the session. “What’s important here is [the user’s] application will continue exactly where it left off,” she said. “Other solutions require users to re-log on, open the application, and hope data isn’t lost.”

Isaac Dunifon, a deputy with the sheriff’s department’s communications technology group, said there was a need for a continuous, reliable mobile data feed to applications even if network coverage was dropped. The public-safety communications project started with the installation of data radios into cruisers, and then continued with the donation of radios to surrounding agencies to build a network. Twenty-seven agencies now share the network and access it through a data radio or an air card.

“A lot of agencies started choosing the air card because the cost was a lot less,” Dunifon said. “They can get the air card for $50 a month or pay $5000 for a radio, [and] that doesn’t include an installation fee.”

As more users joined the network applications slowed to the point where connections were lost, which is why the session-resume feature is so important, Dunifon said. Previously, when a connection was lost, the system deemed it a security violation, which resulted in first responders who tried to reengage the network via the VPN often were denied access, which in turn hindered response time and situational awareness. Now, thanks to the session-resume feature, the VPN gives firefighters, police officers and EMS workers nearly uninterrupted access to mission-critical data and significantly increases productivity in a time-critical environment, Dunifon said.

“The session persistence and encryption were both important,” he said. “Because without security, the application will never work for first responders.”