The dozens of federal, state, and local police departments that responded to the terrorist bombings during the Boston Marathon in April had a vital tool at their disposal: a radio network that enabled disparate agencies to talk to each other.
But one shortcoming of the system was that there was no easy way for investigators and officers in the field to share data, such as photos and videos. But a black box developed by engineers in Massachusetts could provide the ultimate solution.
The box, created by Mutualink Inc., lets firstresponder agencies instantly share all of their digital communications, regardless of what kind of two-way radio, computer network, or telephone system the agency uses. Mutualink can translate virtually any signal into a standard format that other agencies can use.
“We don’t know of any company on the planet that’s doing it the way we’re doing it,” said Mark Hatten, chief executive of Mutualink. Based in Wallingford, Conn., it maintains its research-and-development facility in Westford.
Police, fire, and emergency medical services from many towns and cities routinely offer help during crises like the Boston Marathon bombing or Hurricane Sandy. State and federal agencies also get involved. But agencies may deploy vastly different electronic equipment, broadcast over different frequencies, use different digital encoding standards. As a result, vital information may not be shared with all who need it.
‘You’re betting on a startup company being viable in the long haul.’
The results could be deadly.
During the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, 121 New York firefighters were killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center’s north tower. The New York Police Department had broadcast a radio message, warning of the impending collapse, but the firefighters’ incompatible radios did not receive the message.
Emergency agencies in Greater Boston have tackled this problem by creating the Boston Area Police Emergency Radio Network, or BAPERN. This network enables voice communications between 166 law enforcement agencies in Eastern Massachusetts. BAPERN played a vital role in coordinating the response to the bombings.
“The Marathon was unfortunate, but a great example of the use of the system,” said Brookline’s police chief, Dan O’Leary.
But BAPERN does not offer more sophisticated information sharing, such as the ability to transmit video or still images to multiple agencies, like those of the suspected bombers, who were moving among the Marathon crowds moments before the explosions. Mutualink is designed to fill that gap.
Before joining Mutualink in 2007, Hatten had worked at another company that was tackling the problem. But Hatten said the earlier system “was quite frankly built the wrong way. It was centralized.” Before a city could connect its fire and police radio networks, one of the agencies would have to assume total control of the linked system, and that led to endless bureaucratic wrangling.
“The United States is kind of unique,” said Mutualink’s chief legal counsel, Joseph Mazzarella. “Each part of government feels it’s independent of any of the others. It’s pretty darn hard to say, ‘Everybody adopt the same thing.’ ”
Mutualink’s black box — a network interface controller — takes the opposite approach. A controller capable of supporting a police department of a mid-size city would cost about $30,000, with another $3,000 for annual maintenance and service costs. Each box is stuffed with electronics that make it compatible with nearly every radio, video, telephone, and data networking system used by first responders.
A police department, for instance, could plug its radio, video, telephone, and computer networks into the box, which would translate all of the inputs into a standardized format and encrypt the data for security.
All this information could be shared via the Internet with any other Mutualink user.
When there is a crisis, a police communications manager could log onto the Mutualink box through a standard personal computer. There he could create a dedicated channel for all crisis-related communications. Next, he could invite other first-responder agencies with a Mutualink box to tap into that channel — nearby fire departments, for example, or the State Police.
Mutualink will not let any user randomly tap into another user’s communications. A shared channel would provide access only to data related to the specific crisis. All other communications traffic remains off limits, and once the crisis ends, the shared communications channel is shut down.
James Sheehan, program manager of the Northern New Jersey Urban Area Security Initiative, said that first responders in his state have already put Mutualink to good use. When gunman Richard Shoop invaded the Garden State Plaza mall last month, hundreds of police from multiple departments answered the call. The use of Mutualink helped ensure that everyone was on the same page.
“It targets a specific need, and it works really well,” said Sheehan.
Boston is conducting tests of the Mutualink system.
“We have integrated it with our radio system, with videos and our telephones,” said John Daley, the Boston Police Department’s deputy superintendent in charge of technology.
Mutualink units are also set up at the city’s Fire Department, its emergency medical service dispatch center, transportation management center, and tow lot.
Boston did not rely on Mutualink during the Marathon bombings. But it has come in handy for other applications, such as managing traffic problems.
Boston’s transportation management center operates video cameras at key intersections to monitor traffic. For example, if a stuck vehicle is causing congestion, traffic managers can send a live video feed of the car directly to the towing center, which then remotely monitors the situation while the tow truck is en route. And if the vehicle is fixed or moved quickly, the tow truck can be recalled, saving time and money.
Mutualink has also been installed in public schools, hospitals, and shopping malls. In an emergency, the facility’s security personnel can use Mutualink to speak directly to police or to transmit images from the building’s security cameras.
Still, Mutualink will need more than impressive technology to achieve success.
Ken Rehbehn, a volunteer firefighter and an analyst at the Boston tech research firm Yankee Group, called the system “an ambitious undertaking” that works only if lots of agencies use it.
Signing up many users will be especially tough because Mutualink is a new company without a track record of success in emergency communications.
“You’re betting on a startup company being viable in the long haul,” Rehbehn said. “If you’re making a purchase decision, you’re reluctant to be the first one out the door.”
Mutualink could get a boost from the US government’s ongoing effort to build a $7 billion nationwide digital network for first responders called FirstNet. Using 4G LTE wireless technology, FirstNet will support advanced data-sharing features, such as live video streaming. Local agencies must still connect a variety of radio, video, and phone systems to the national network.
“We’re big supporters of FirstNet,” said Mutualink’s president, Colin McWay, because his black box could be a less costly way for local departments to plug into the network. “We’re convinced that this is the way that this problem is going to be solved.”
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.