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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 62· No. 4 > Be ALERT for Efficiency and Safety

Jan/Feb 1998
Vol. 62· No. 4

Be ALERT for Efficiency and Safety

by Leslie Busler

As a sergeant in the College Station, Texas, police department, Greg Lewis knows that police work often involves tedious, information gathering and checking. Until now, he could do little about many of the inherent, procedural inefficiencies and the occasional inaccurate data.

However, now Lewis is testing technologies that are sure to change the way he does his job. He is a participant in a joint project of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) to help all public safety personnel work more efficiently by automating the data-collection process.

Police Officer with handheld ALERT unit.

Using a handheld unit, an officer can enter data far more quickly than filling out paper forms.

The project, which is called ALERTtm (Advanced Law Enforcement Response Technology), does more than simply make it easier for the patrolman to record information. The ALERT system dramatically improves the efficiency of law enforcement operations and helps make the roadways safer for everyone by enabling the officer to more quickly clear the accident scene. Depending on the complexity of the crash, ALERT enables the officer to cut data-collection time by 20 percent to 50 percent.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater, noting that safety is President Clinton's top transportation priority, said that ALERT will help shape the future of traffic law enforcement and highway safety operations.

Police officer using in-vehicle ALERT system.

An officer can control lights, siren, and other devices at the touch of a finger on the touch-screen display. The user also has access to information from crime databases instaneously.

And the ALERT system currently being tested in police vehicles in Bryan and College Station, Texas, is only the first of several planned applications. In the future, ALERT may be used to assist fire and emergency medical services, commercial vehicle operations, and criminal investigations.

In the ongoing evaluation of the current ALERT, the system is proving its value to traffic enforcement officers. Without ALERT, officers in some departments must fill out as many as 17 forms for a single alcohol-related accident. Then the information is handled at least a dozen more times as it is typed, photocopied, and sent to a central records database. Research - and common sense - tells us that each time the information is handled, another opportunity to introduce errors occurs.

NHTSA Administrator Ricardo Martinez.

NHTSA Administrator Ricardo Martinez voiced his support for the ALERT project at its unveiling at the 1996 conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Phoenix.

The ALERT system has an on-board computer linked to a touch-screen display and a wireless handheld remote unit. Together, these components make data gathering, entry, and sharing simpler, quicker, and more reliable.

The ALERT platform also provides the ability to integrate the control of various devices. A traffic officer can control radar, emergency lights, siren, radio communications, global positioning system (GPS) unit, video camera, and display with the touch of a finger.

All necessary citation and accident forms are stored electronically within the handheld unit; so, rather than using a series of paper forms, the officer can enter information directly into the computer using the remote unit. The information is electronically entered only once, eliminating possible errors from repetitious entry. Electronic data entry also eliminates errors that can result from illegible handwriting. Also, a software editing feature pinpoints errors as data are entered. New information is incorporated into a central database in a matter of hours as opposed to days or even weeks.

In addition, GPS automatically transmits the vehicle's location to the agency headquarters, and other emergency personnel can be dispatched if needed.

ALERT also enables the officer to independently access traffic and criminal records.

"When I'm on a contact, I no longer have to return to my car or rely on dispatch for the information. I have all the information I need when and where I need it," Sgt. Lewis said.

ALERT reduces redundant information gathering for all areas and expedites incident management. For example, the first officer on the scene of an accident can collect the information and send it to other emergency personnel on the scene via a local area network. Other possibilities include the ability to send a report about the condition of a crash victim to a hospital emergency room, allowing the staff to determine the best treatment prior to the patient's arrival.

Clutter free ALERT system.

ALERT's clean cockpit design minimizes the need for equipment and cables that previously were cluttering and distracting and that obstructed access to dashboard controls.

The ALERT project is a partnership all around.

"The federal government is making an investment in research, and private industry is contributing expertise and equipment," said Ricardo Martinez, chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). "Now local and state governments, through their police agencies, are developing a system that will greatly enhance public safety, efficiency, and effectiveness."

The system is being developed by TTI with the help of FHWA, the Texas Department of Transportation, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and NHTSA. TTI researchers are integrating technologies into the ALERT system and working with College Station Police Department officers and Texas Department of Public Safety troopers who are testing the two ALERT systems in the field. Together, TTI and the officers are working to refine the system. In the future, TTI will develop a similar testing scenario for applications for fire departments and emergency medical services.

The ALERT-equipped police vehicles have also been on the road to many conferences and public safety exhibitions where they are commanding a lot of attention from law enforcement officers, public safety professionals, government officials, and industry leaders. One of ALERT's most popular features is the modular design, which makes it applicable to all areas of public safety.

"There is a lot of potential for the basic architecture platform," said Bill Baker, chief of FHWA's Safety and Advanced Transportation Applications Division. "Already, the ALERT system has attracted nationwide interest."

The National Institute of Justice is working with FHWA and TTI to establish, manage, and support two ALERT testbeds. These testbeds will allow developers to evaluate ALERT's digital information-sharing capabilities, including digital images, in public safety applications.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) likes the ALERT system's compatibility with crime information databases, such as the National Crime Information Center. Currently, these databases are only accessible from police headquarters, but in a matter of months, the ALERT prototype vehicles will allow officers to access this information from their vehicles.

Although the system is still in its developmental stages, it has already been recognized for its innovation. ALERT was added to the Smithsonian Institution's Permanent Research Collection of Information Technology.

"We are delighted to have this excellent example of how information technology is being used to improve our world included in the national collection," said David Allison, chairman of the museum's Division of Information Technology. "The Texas Transportation Institute and the U.S. Department of Transportation are using information technology to create strides toward remarkable social improvement."

More recently, ALERT won Vice President Al Gore's Hammer Award, which recognizes teams that have made significant contributions in support of the president's National Performance Review principles.

"This is one of the best examples I've seen in all the years that I've been in law enforcement of how federal money can really come to bear on some of the problems that we really face in state and local law enforcement," said Harlin McEwen, deputy assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division.

In the buzz of ALERT's success, it seems pretty clear that ALERT will catch on nationwide. Some have described ALERT as the next wave of law-enforcement enhancement - on par with the radio, the weapon, and the police vehicle. The next step is to bring its benefits to emergency medical and fire services.

The ALERT technology makes the move to more efficient public safety a smooth ride, and the system has definitely smoothed out many of the kinks of the job for Sgt. Lewis.

Leslie Busler is a research assistant at the Texas Transportation Institute and editor of Texas Transportation Researcher. She has been involved in the promotion of the ALERT project since its early stages. She also writes articles and summaries on transportation-related research. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Texas A&M University.

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