Oglala Sioux Tribe using FirstNet to integrate technology, increase officer safety

by Tawny Zimiga, IT Director - Oglala Sioux Tribe Department of Public Safety

Prior to going to FirstNet, we had no reliable way to communicate. We looked into different options – a lot were expensive and unattainable for our agency.

So we started looking into wireless options as well as wired. And that’s when I read about FirstNet in its beginning stages. I knew all the states had opted in – including South Dakota. And that prompted me to look into it further to see if we were eligible – which we were. Once I researched it and saw the benefits, I presented it to the chief and he was excited about it.

At that time, we had zero police units with wireless connectivity. Police officers had to go to smaller departments or buildings that we created to use the computers for report writing. It was taking them off the street and out of the communities where they really needed to be. And that didn't help an already shorthanded situation.

They just didn't have as much access to the tools and information that they do now. So this could pose a risk in not being able to call for backup, especially if they didn't have any cell service.

Improving technology

FirstNet is the first time we've ever been able to connect in the vehicle itself. And this has allowed us to add technologies that we didn't have before. Today, we're using FirstNet for all of our MiFis in the police vehicles and on our department cell phones.

Almost anything they would need in an office-type setting they can do in their vehicles now. A lot of this is thanks to the connectivity with FirstNet. That helps keep them on the road and in the communities.

In the vehicles, the officers have a hardened laptop that’s connected to a driver's license scanner. They can make traffic stops and print tickets, if needed. They can run background checks. They have access to the records management system, which includes CAD and dispatch. They can write police reports. They can look up jail records history.

They have access to a number of databases. And they have a connection to GPS for location.

Officer safety

The safety benefit for the officer is we’re able to locate them and send backup if needed, as fast as possible. We cover three counties within South Dakota. In a reservation this large, that is definitely a positive and needed tool. Officers could be miles and miles from each other. But they can see each other on the map. So, that's a great benefit.

If they need assistance or help with directions, they can use it to help them get where they need to go faster. And dispatch uses the mapping portion of the GPS. They can see the officers, where they are on the reservation, which call they're on and which officer may be closest to a call to see if they need to dispatch them.

A lot of the communications issues we dealt with prior to FirstNet are almost all eliminated.

Every officer has a hardened laptop in their car with a MiFi. Every officer has access back to the network, to all the data. Everything that dispatch puts in, the officer can see. They can communicate with the dispatcher. So they’re really great tools. We've never had that before.

I tell friends and family that they may not know it, but they're safer. Officers are safer. We have access to technology that we didn't have before. And we’re using it in ways we never knew we could. So, it's a good thing for the whole reservation.

Technology for the future

In the future, we'd like to add Cradlepoint routers to our fleet for additional testing. So far, it's the route that we want to go as far as equipment. It allows us to stay connected when other equipment may not let us. It's been a really great asset to us.

For our department, we depend a lot on technology grants, as technology isn't something that’s funded through our basic budget. I'm hoping that we can find a grant that will help us purchase things like Cradlepoints – and possibly other emergency type communication tool and mapping software.

That's going to be my main focus to enhance what we already have with FirstNet.

What I'm hoping in the future is that any grant opportunities that come up include equipment that we can use on FirstNet. That’s going to be critical for a lot of departments – including tribal departments.

For any agency looking into joining FirstNet, I have found nothing but benefits – including pricing. I would definitely recommend they join FirstNet and continue to help improve it.

Tawny Zimiga is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and IT Supervisor at the Oglala Sioux Tribe Department of Public Safety.