The network, which participants call the first of its kind, is called the Capital Wireless Integrated Network, or CapWIN. IBM Corp. will build the $20 million system, funded by Congress, over the next two years.
"For us old warhorses, this is like a dream come true when it comes to communicating in emergencies," said Chief Charles Samarra of the Alexandria, Va., police.
The network will cover police, fire, ambulance and transportation officials in Washington and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs, as well as federal agencies such as the FBI and the Capitol Police.
It will allow authorities with different jurisdictions to communicate in electronic "chat rooms" on laptop computers, handheld computers and cell phones. Authorities currently have no means of reliable communication outside of their own jurisdictions, Samarra said.
Two years ago, after an incident on a bridge connecting Virginia and Maryland, federal officials and authorities from both states came to the scene.
"We found ourselves all on the bridge and unable to communicate adequately with each other," Samarra said. "We had to end up sending notes by runners." Traffic was backed up for five hours due to the incident.
The system will make data sharing easier. Currently, a Virginia police officer who pulls over a District of Columbia driver can instantly find out whether the driver is wanted on a national or Virginia warrant. Searches in other jurisdictions take far longer.
"Because of the time involved, most officers are just not going to do it," Samarra said.
The new network will give almost instant access to crime databases. Maryland police officers have used a test version to recover stolen vehicles.
An interstate task force would be able to establish its own chat room on the network, letting members stay in touch during ongoing investigations.
IBM officials said the network will be designed to handle 10,000 users, and complies with the FBI's standards for wireless computer security. The network runs on existing gadgets, IBM said, so local agencies won't need to buy new hardware.
Several recent reports have highlighted communications problems in New York as emergency personnel converged at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. A report released earlier this week by New York officials said the city's police communications system was incompatible with the network used by firefighters, and radio problems left many commanders and firefighters unable to communicate with each other.
"If New York could have had CapWIN, a lot of the things I read about in the paper would not have been issues," Samarra said.
By D. Ian Hopper