Reflecting on changing communication technology in law enforcement.
When older folks get together, one of their favorite topics of discussion is “the way things used to be.” These reflections are likely to include varying accounts of five-mile, barefoot walks to school that began at 5:00 AM after the daily chores were done. The route was uphill both ways, of course, often through waist-deep snow. Other discussions focus on runaway inflation and musings of the days of thirty-cent gasoline and five-cent coffee. Still others focus on generational differences and “these kids today.” This phenomenon spans all social and professional realms, but when the dinosaurs of the public safety world get together, the topic-areas tend to be unique to the profession.
When we met, Tom Randall was a Lieutenant with the Brazos County (TX) Sheriff’s Department. At the time of our meeting he was in full uniform, which included the standard-issue Sam Browne belt with all essential gear in its rightful place. But I was struck by the contents of his holster: a stainless Smith & Wesson Model 66 revolver.
Vintage. Old school.
It didn’t take us long to venture down the nostalgic path to the wonderful days of yesteryear (I went to work in law enforcement in 1978; Tom started in 1979).
As Tom and I visited, we found that we shared an appreciation for the technologies that support today’s law enforcement officers and other first responders, especially in the area of communications. In our early patrol days, our cars had the same essential communications equipment: a three-channel radio (primary, inter-city and direct/car-to-car).
My department later acquired two “walkie-talkies,” but the criminal investigation division laid claim to those early on and they were rarely seen again. Thus, stepping out of the patrol car rendered the officer communication-less.
For both of us, the equipment was relatively new, as our departments had both transitioned from 37.180 MHz and 37.260 MHz radios, respectively. Our dispatch offices also had identical equipment: a 4-line phone, a 4-channel radio console and a teletype machine.
Early Data Sharing
It’s been said that the teletype machine was the second data-sharing technology available to the public safety profession, the telegraph being the first. These loud, monstrous machines, which adorned the dispatch offices of thousands of law enforcement agencies throughout the country, were initially developed for military use.
After their introduction to the public in 1953, the Teletype Corporation Model 28 ASR became the machine most commonly used among US agencies. Comprised of over 8,000 parts, they measured 40 inches tall, 36 inches wide and 18.5 inches deep, excluding the keyboard. They weighed more than 260 pounds, and at the time were considered by most enthusiastic users to be “state of the art.”
All communications functions with the Model 28 required the operator to type the message or query using prescribed “prefixes,” depending on the recipient or database inquiry. A driver license inquiry, for instance, contained the license information/driving record (LIDR) prefix and either the name and date of birth of the subject of the inquiry or a driver license number. The response to the inquiry would arrive as a paper print-out somewhere between a few minutes to several days after the request, and would contain either the LIDR data or, very often, the response “LIDR is down.”
Any discussion about the speed of data in that era (or the lack thereof) will usually include anecdotal accounts of “ones that got away.” Wanted individuals and stolen cars have disappeared into the night simply because the “returns” (responses to LIDR, TCIC/NCIC and MVD requests) were not available due to issues with their respective databases.
It’s important to note that my first meeting with Tom occurred during a gathering that included more than one hundred local, county and state officials from throughout Texas and other states. They convened in Austin in February of 2015, taking advantage of an opportunity to meet with officials from FirstNet and the Texas Public Safety Broadband Program. Tom’s participation included a presentation and Q&A session on the status of his department’s testing of Band 14 (public safety broadband) equipment. At that time, six of the department’s patrol cars had been outfitted with in-vehicle routers and modems. Using dual chipset technology, the modems operated on Harris County’s public safety LTE network while they were within the network’s range, and transitioned to a commercial carrier when they moved out of the Band 14 coverage area.
Old-School Cop Meets New-School Technology
Tom says he wasn’t always technologically inclined, but he saw a need for the public safety profession to adapt to the changing times, which included embracing new technologies. As the department’s Special Services Division Lieutenant, a project hit Tom’s desk in 2006: transitioning the department’s analog cameras to digital technologies. “We didn’t start by setting our sights on having Band 14 in all of our patrol cars,” he explained. “I started out with the objective of converting our analog cameras to digital. But it was one of those projects that grew and evolved and led us down new paths and to new ideas,” he said. Over the next few years, those new paths and ideas included a new body-worn device project, a video upload system, and the introduction of a number of other new technologies to the department.
As the scope of the projects expanded, the agency began to explore a data radio solution for CAD and in-vehicle communications. Then, as the department began to realize that these new projects would require a more robust wireless connection than what was available at the time, they became aware of the Harris County LTE project. “In short, after extensive discussions and planning, it was mutually agreed that the department was perfectly situated to serve as the lead agency for an extended-range test site,” Tom said. The department began beta testing on the network in 2013.
Today, the department has more than 70 sheriff’s office and constable units utilizing FirstNet/AT&T equipment. The department continues to gather critical data, knowledge and insight from these efforts, and the lessons they learn are routinely shared with FirstNet and public safety professionals throughout the US.
So, how is it that an old-school, 37-year law enforcement officer, who could sit down today and operate a Model 28 ASR teletype, and who carried the same “wheel gun” from the time he was sworn in until his retirement in December of 2016, could be assigned to oversee the implementation of a technology that was so new and unique that only a handful of entities in the United States were involved? Tom says it was an incremental and progressive process. “The more we explored, the more we learned, and we found more ways to integrate the various technologies and solutions.”
Among those integration solutions were the department’s computer aided dispatch (CAD) system, the records management system (RMS) and the jail management system (JMS). The speed, capacity and exclusive access to Band 14 spectrum allowed the department to operate more efficiently and safely.
FirstNet has proven its value, not only on a daily operational basis, but during major incidents and events, such as Texas A&M football games. “Like a lot of other agencies and departments, we were hampered by network congestion during these events. With the dedicated network, we were able to share data, video, images and other information, and were not impeded by the congestion that the average wireless consumer was experiencing,” he said.
In November of 2016, having led the effort to transform the technologies of the Brazos County Sheriff’s Office, and having served in the law enforcement profession for more than 37 years, Tom Randall decided to retire. His initial intentions were to spend more time with family and attend to his car collection. That didn’t last long. “I had been involved in the development and implementation of FirstNet for several years, and it was finally becoming a reality. I wanted to help agencies and departments achieve what we had done in Brazos County,” Tom said. “When I was invited to become a part of the outreach and education team for the Texas Public Safety Broadband Program, I just couldn’t pass it up.”
Today, Tom is traveling throughout the state, working in collaboration with the Texas Program and FirstNet/AT&T to describe the advantages of a dedicated network specifically for public safety. Like many other public safety professionals, Tom realizes that it’s not a matter of mere convenience. “This technology can save lives,” he says. “How can you not be enthusiastic about that?”
Tom regularly attends meetings with agency officials and presents workshops at conferences. To request Tom or another speaker for a meeting or conference, contact the Texas Public Safety Broadband Program at LTE@dps.texas.gov.