WASHINGTON – Washington-area emergency response agencies showed off a first-in-the-nation wireless system Tuesday that lets them communicate with each other and share information quickly and securely in emergencies.
The $20 million Capital Wireless Integrated Network (CapWIN) is being touted as the first “interjurisdictional” system in the country, linking 20 federal, state, and local agencies in Maryland, Virginia and the District.
“It’s essential that our emergency responders have the ability to work together on an immediate and emergency basis,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, one of several local lawmakers who turned out for the Capitol Hill demonstration. “We are one unit, one region, and we have to make sure our people have the tools they need.”
Developed at the University of Maryland, CapWIN is “interoperable,” the current buzzword in homeland security, which means it provides a common link between different communication and data systems. The network runs off laptop computers — mounted in police cars or other emergency response vehicles — providing instant messaging between users, access to federal and state law enforcement databases and a virtual “phonebook” of Washington-area first-responders.
The system is secure — all messages are encrypted — and communication is possible even in Metro tunnels or when wireless networks are disabled, said George Ake, CapWIN program director.
The impetus for the system came from Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon, as well as frustrations of local transportation and law enforcement departments when responding to accidents or traffic jams. Development began in 2002, and agencies started testing the system last year.
The biggest obstacle for developers, said Roddy Moscoso, CapWIN’s marketing manager, was getting the Maryland, Virginia, and Washington police departments to allow each other access to their respective databases.
“It was a big deal,” he said, overcoming the reservations of wary bureaucrats who tend to think “just because you’re a state police officer doesn’t mean I’m going to give you access to my stuff.”
Generally, however, Ake said, interagency cooperation has been the byword for the project. The system is now being used by a broad range of Washington-area emergency agencies, from Pentagon and National Park Service police to the Fairfax, Va., fire department to state police in College Park and Rockville.
Sgt. Julio Valcarcel of the Maryland State Police said his agency has 10 CapWIN units and is “eager to get more.” Officers are being encouraged to use the system for day-to-day police work, like running license plate numbers or responding to traffic accidents, he said, so they will be comfortable with it in case of major emergencies.
Looking forward, Ake sees CapWIN as a model for the nation and expects to see the system running on personal digital assistants, making it even faster and easier to use in emergencies.
“It’s not perfect,” he said. “What this technology does is prepare for the future.”
-30- CNS 09-28-04