Treasure Valley tech firms partner with local police

From LED lightbars to routers and GPS, local law officers and companies are forging mutually beneficial bonds.

krodine@idahostatesman.comOctober 22, 2013 

If you’ve been stopped by a Boise police officer in the past few years, chances are the flashing lights that alerted you to pull over were developed by Boise’s ECCO Group.

ECCO’s role in the Boise Police Department’s conversion to low-profile LED light bars is a prime example of the department’s embrace of local technology firms, Chief of Police Mike Masterson says.

So is the BPD’s planned adoption of Cradlepoint wireless routers to enable patrol officers to stay in the neighborhoods they serve while quickly accessing and transmitting vital information from their cars.

Other Treasure Valley companies also are tapping into local law enforcement’s need for technology to make their efforts more effective.

Caldwell police are testing, and on the verge of buying, GPS trackers from Eagle-based Datablaze that will help them find and recover stolen property. Canyon County’s fleet director worked with Treasure Valley Solar to test a system to use solar energy to replenish the batteries in sheriff’s patrol cars. It’s part of an energy-saving focus that prompted the county to partner with Meridian-based Flex Fuel International to retrofit some of Canyon’s older patrol cars to use ethanol-blended fuel.

“We always try to buy local if we can,” says Caldwell Police Lt. Dave Wright, a sentiment echoed by other area law enforcement spokesmen.

It’s not just a desire to benefit businesses in their service area, they say: Adopting locally produced devices makes customization and collaboration more practical and cost-effective.

A CONVENIENT COLLABORATION

“Part of the reason it worked is because they were local,” says Capt. Eugene Smith, fleet commander for Boise police, of the department’s adoption of ECCO’s LED systems. “Our fleet people could go over to ECCO, look at them and make suggestions. We could say, ‘We wish we had a light that worked here,’ and they’d work with us to get it.

“It saved us a lot of time and set-up costs.”

The proximity and strong communication with city fleet managers have been a boon to ECCO, too, says Greg Burk, the international company’s product manager for light bars and directional lighting.

“It’s been a real pleasure to have a department that's willing to work with us, and it’s really good having it right in our backyard,” Burk says.

The new light systems are about 30 percent brighter, last much longer and draw dramatically less power from a patrol car’s battery: up to 12 amps compared with around 41 amps for the traditional “rotating bar with halogen bulbs,” he says.

The slim line of the new-style lightbars makes them significantly less susceptible to overhead hazards such as car washes or low-hanging tree branches, Smith says.

Boise police switched to ECCO light systems several years ago as part of a major patrol fleet changeover, Smith says. Ford stopped making its traditional patrol workhorse, the Crown Victoria, and Boise decided to switch to Dodge Chargers and equip them in a way that would best suit the department.

Burk says ECCO got excellent exposure from the BPD’s first tricked-out Chargers, which were displayed at police fleet expos.

“It worked for our marketing,” he says. “It got us out there.”

A full light package averages about $5,000 per vehicle, he says.

Lighting for emergency vehicles is only about 5 percent of ECCO’s domestic business, Burk said, but it’s an important sideline for a company that focuses primarily on backup alarms used by construction, utility and other vehicles. It also makes light systems for commercial vehicles.

By now, around half of the department’s 300 marked and unmarked cars use the new equipment. “From now on, any vehicle we have built will have these lights,” Smith says.

OFFICE IN A CAR

While the Boise police conversion to ECCO lights is a done deal, another fleet upgrade is just getting started. Smith and others who drive unmarked cars have been testing mobile hotspots made by Boise-based Cradlepoint, and they plan to purchase enough of them to “outfit all of the marked fleet and a fair amount of the unmarked fleet,” Smith says.

“I’m not a real tech-y type person, but ... I can just tell you that my car is a better office than my office,” he says. “The speed is fantastic, the performance is fantastic.”

“We’ve struggled for quite some time,” Smith says. “We had tried several (mobile hotspots) and we had two types of problems. Either we couldn’t find one that could stand up to the rigors of an entire day of service, or the price was prohibitive.”

Cradlepoint offers strong, secure routers that address both issues, he says.

Most of Cradlepoint’s business is with national and international companies, says Ken Hosac, vice president for business development. But public safety departments are a growing part of their clientele.

Hosac recently flew to New York to talk emergency access with fire districts on Long Island whose communication technology was “hammered by Hurricane Sandy. ... We’re installing it today [Oct. 17] in one of their fire chief’s vehicles,” he says.

“It’s organizations like the Boise Police Department that have been fueling our growth,” Hosac says, noting that Cradlepoint has grown from about 90 employees two years ago to 150 now.

The biggest benefit to the department and community, Smith says, is that the Cradlepoint routers will allow patrol officers to access the county database and other records to allow them to verify suspect identities and file reports without leaving the neighborhood they patrol.

Before, he says, “you could access it, but it was very slow ... ineffective to the point where most officers didn’t use it. Most officers would go back to the station.”

The Cradlepoint routers used by Boise police cost less than $500 each and are from the company’s M2M line, used on New York City buses and other transportation applications, Hosac says.

“They had by far the best product, and they’re local ... it was a great combination,” Capt. Smith says. “They were very willing to make adjustments to the product as we asked for different things.”

BLAZING A GPS TRAIL

Caldwell’s Lt. Wright is similarly impressed with the GPS tracker he’s testing from Datablaze. The department has been experimenting with the device as a “property recovery device” and expects to seal a deal to buy an undisclosed number of Datablaze devices this fall.

Wright declines to provide details on numbers or on what types of theft-vulnerable property Caldwell police aim to safeguard. “I want the suspect to always be nervous about it,” he says.

High-value theft targets often include construction-site equipment and supplies as well as vehicles.

Eagle-based Datablaze has been working with police departments in California and elsewhere for about six years, account manager Amanda Staley says. “It’s nice when we get a local community to work with.”

The devices desired by Caldwell are “about the height of a ChapStick, an inch wide and a half-inch thick,” she says. Their batteries last about five days between charges, and the trackers report their location every 15 seconds so officers can follow from a distance. Police can view the purloined property’s travels with live tracking.

Cost ranges from $200 to $500 per unit, depending on the device, number of units ordered and any accessories, Staley says.

“It’s a new age technology,” Wright says. “It takes us to within a couple of feet of where the object’s at, and it can do it quickly.”

Kristin Rodine: 377-6447

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