vicki powers
freelance writer

Community Connections

Local Governments Build Powerful Environments Through Technology

Cisco's iQ magazine , Fourth Quarter 2005

by Vicki Powers

When it rains in the Seattle suburb of Renton, Washingtonwhich is oftenand the sprinklers are watering the lawns at the parks, someone has to turn them off. A year ago, that meant someone from the city's Community Services Department had to get in a truck, drive to a park, and manually turn them off. And then get back in the truck, drive to the next park, and repeat the process. With 26 city parks in Renton, it's not a trivial task.

Today, it's a different story. When it rains in Renton and the sprinklers are watering the lawns at the park, someone still has to turn them off. But instead of getting in a truck and doing a tour of the city, Parks Manager Terry Flately can remotely access and change the settings of wireless sprinkler controls from anywhere on the city's network.

Clearly, technology is changing how government works. Improving and ensuring the efficiency and productivity of local government operations depends on creating connections between agencies as well as with the community. Networking technology helps to create these connections, as well as enabling local governments to add new services, increase efficiency, and improve public safety.

"Good local and state governments have begun to understand that putting connected technology into their government operations is absolutely critical," says John Kenny, CEO and cofounder of Infotech Strategies, an information and communications technology consulting firm.

In a disconnected environment, agencies often operate independently without easy connections to shared information and resources. They also face many challenges in making these connections, including lack of standard technologies, budget limitations, and management of multiple networks for voice, data, and video.

Many local and regional governments are working to integrate their operations and create more connected communities. Converged networks that handle voice, data, and video, with technologies including Internet Protocol (IP) Communications, wireless networks, and streaming video, are proving valuable and helping agencies more effectively serve their citizens and increase productivity.


In Renton, fire inspectors use a wireless solution to interact with the network in real time while doing inspections in the field.

"If we can do it in real time as opposed to writing the information and manually entering it back in the office, we're saving time, which translates to money and a whole chain of events that [positively] impacts the local business community," says Ron Hansen, Renton's network systems supervisor.
"When we envisioned making Renton a wireless community, we knew we could provide an immediate gain in public safety."

Police Chief Garry Anderson concurs: "Keeping officers in the community is critical to our mission," he says. City of Renton Outdoor Wireless Network (CROWN) covers 20 square miles in the community, with 50 patrol, traffic, command police vehicles, and fire apparatus functioning as traveling wireless networks. The network provides many safety and productivity applications, including real-time online access to the police records-management system, FBI emergency management information; and online crime bulletins.

Officers on patrol can file reports online from their vehicles. This change alone allows Renton to increase the police presence in the community without hiring more officers.

What initially began as a technology solution for the police department has expanded to benefit other city departments and public safety agencies, including the fire department, local hospitals, and schools. Collaboration with adjacent cities is another aspect of Renton's plan. Hansen is working to enable cross-jurisdictional communications and to build out the network to create a larger, regional system, initially extending to five more cities south of Renton, including Seattle.


The Northern California city of Milpitas has likewise expanded its use of wireless technology to improve public safety in the past two years. A wireless-mesh network for police and fire communications covers about eight square miles in the community of 65,000 and allows personnel access to information they previously had to return to the station to obtain.

Each mobile unit is also equipped with computers, allowing officers and fire personnel to see the same information and more effectively deploy resources at an incident scene. If multiple units are responding to a call, the system helps them identify who will arrive first.

"The battalion chief, for example, can start making assignments even before people are on the scene," says Bill Marion, information services director for Milpitas.


Kane County, a community of more than 443,000 near Chicago, uses networking technology to improve communications among emergency-response agencies, the Office of Emergency Management, and the county's Health Department. The result is better public safety due to coordination of services.

Kane County's technology project started with an old mainframe system and outdated voice service, which clearly needed updating when the county began renovating aging buildings in 2002. In addition to upgrading basic equipment, new technology was installed, designed to help employees be more productive and responsive to the community.

"Technology has become a critical component to every type of service that government offers," says Karen McConnaughay, Kane County Board Chairman. "We can invest the money the county saves with IP Communications in programs to reach more citizens and provide new or enhanced services."
For example, attorneys and staff in the county's criminal justice offices now have wireless access to the Internet and the county's electronic case-management system, which allows them to get the information they need, when they need it.

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