Municipal Wireless Supports Corpus Christi’s Public Safety

Municipal wireless networks can pay enormous dividends for public safety, but success depends on building awareness and consensus within city departments and effectively managing expectations, Corpus Christi, Texas, officials told a recent meeting of city managers held in that gulf port city.

Speaking at a conference called “Wi-Fi Done Right Part 2,” organized by the Public Technology Institute, a Washington-based non-profit organization involved in urban policy and planning, Corpus Christi Fire Chief Richard Hooks and Chief of Police Bryan Smith sketched a picture of a wireless network that was conceived not as an end in itself, but as an element in a much larger information technology overhaul designed to improve city operations through strategic application of digital technology and large-scale networking.

Corpus Christi has been repeatedly cited as a successful example of a municipal wireless project. Municipal wireless involves the construction and operation of a citywide wireless broadband system, usually with 802.11 technology, commonly known as Wi-Fi, either by the city itself or in partnership with a commercial carrier.

The idea caught fire about two years ago as cities such as Philadelphia, Phoenix, Houston, Chicago and San Francisco announced plans to pursue systems. Companies such as EarthLink and MetroFi aggressively positioned themselves as industry partners.

Early enthusiasm stalled amid reports from the early muni launches of cost overruns and coverage problems. This summer MetroFi began asking for significant financial commitments from partner cities before moving forward. EarthLink scaled back its entire muni wireless operation, and most cities dropped their plans.

Aligning City Interests

Corpus Christi, however, remains one of two cities EarthLink will support (the other is Philadelphia, EarthLink’s inaugural muni network). The reason, said Corpus officials, is that the city’s strategy from the start was to align the interests of numerous city departments, police, fire, education, licensing and develop a business plan that could effectively meet their needs yet measure and monitor results. That in turn allowed for validation of the strategy, acceptable return on investment, and an ability to make adjustments when necessary.

“For city departments we had to make [Wi-Fi] relevant. We had to demonstrate the portable devices, the mobile network, access to databases, training, communications and the improvements in operational efficiency and service delivery would be there,” said Oscar Martinez, assistant city manager.

Corpus Christi’s municipal Wi-Fi system is expected to by fully operational by the end of this year. The city is currently running most of its current wireless applications on Verizon Wireless’s local cellular network. That network will act as a back-up once the EarthLink system is fully online, officials said.

The Wi-Fi system was initially designed to handle automatic meter reading, but as planning moved forward, Corpus Christi police, fire and ambulance corps, brainstorming with the city’s IT managers as well as with other city departments, developed numerous other applications.

For example, using automatic vehicle location in conjunction with the wireless network, dispatchers can not only find the unit nearest to a fire or emergency, they can determine if that particular unit or vehicle has the necessary equipment, from “helmets to hoses,” to respond effectively, said Hooks. Public safety answering points, which handle 911 calls, can now forward architectural plans directly to screens in fire trucks, he added.

Tracking Evacuees

One of the most critical applications, especially after Hurricane Katrina, will be identification and registration of evacuees in the event of a major hurricane, to which Corpus, given its Gulf Coast location, is susceptible. Evacuation personnel stationed at emergency bus depots can log names, addresses, next-of-kin and other personnel information using remote wireless terminals on the scene, creating a real-time database of evacuees and where they were sent.

Other applications the wireless network makes possible include location and tracking of firefighters inside a building, streaming video from emergency scenes and remote monitoring of equipment, such as the amount of air firefighters have in their tanks.

Meanwhile, police officials plan to use the municipal wireless system to create a network of surveillance cameras. “Crime goes down when people know cameras are there,” said Smith. While Corpus has a residential population of 300,000, as a vacation destination its numbers can swell to 5 million during spring and summer vacation periods. The cameras in part help deal with manpower issues that arise from such a variance in people and traffic flow.

Corpus Christi police also are trialing an automatic license plate recognition system. Scanners mounted on the roofs of patrol cars can read number plates from vehicles parked of in motion. The data is transmitted back to a central data base. If a license plate number is matched against a stolen or sought vehicle, the patrol car is immediately alerted.

Corpus Christi police cars are currently equipped with cameras and VCRs. Ultimately, Smith wants to equip all 120 police patrol cars with a digital video recorder which, at the end each shift, would automatically upload the video data to a server via the wireless network. In addition to creating less work for officers and hassle of logging and tracking tapes and cassettes, it would eliminate the potential for tampering of recordings.

Facts About Corpus Christi Wi-Fi:

  • Northrop Grumman managed initial design and construction under city contract.
  • Automatic metering equipment was supplied by National Metering Services Inc.
  • EarthLink paid Corpus Christi $5.3 million for the 147-square mile city network built and financed by the city’s municipal gas and water utility for $7 million.
  • EarthLink pays the city a franchise fee of 5 percent of revenues to pay for right-of-way and other costs associated with network maintenance.
  • EarthLink pays $237,000 per year for use of the city’s fiber optic backbone to backhaul wireless network traffic.
  • Corpus Christi is committed to paying $450,000 this year in wireless network services from EarthLink, although if the city fails to reach that plateau in 2007, the payments will be credited toward billings next year.
    EarthLink will provide 100 hours a month of maintenance as part of the agreement. Above that limit, maintenance is billed at $200 per hour.

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