Military high-tech hits the homeland

BU, others test systems used in battle to help in response to domestic emergencies

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By By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / October 25, 2010

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At Boston University Medical Center last month, a make-believe gunman terrorized make-believe victims. But the technologies university police used to track him down were the real thing.

BU police Lieutenant Robert Casey led the four-man team that entered Bakst Auditorium. A head-mounted digital eyepiece showed him a floor plan and video of the intruder, captured from security cameras. The eyepiece plugged into a “ruggedized’’ computer in Casey’s backpack. A video camera mounted on the backpack’s shoulder strap sent live images of the rescue to the mobile command post outside.

For all its sci-fi dazzle, the gear was standard-issue stuff, much of it already used by US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kevin Thomas, director of Boston University’s master’s degree program in health care emergency management, hopes to apply the technology to civilian challenges, including rescuing hostages and capturing criminals, hence the recent test at the medical school and another trial with police and firefighters at a Somerville elementary school.

“I was aware of the fact that we used these video and audio capabilities in the Defense Department, and knew those same tools would be very useful on the domestic side,’’ said Thomas, a retired Navy commander.

The program teaches police, firefighters, and health care workers how to deal with natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and other crises.

One of the toughest is an “active shooter,’’ police jargon for an armed person who opens fire in a building full of people. During the 1999 massacre at Colorado’s Columbine High School, which ended in 15 deaths, police were slow to enter the building. Since then, police across the country have been trained to react to active shooters as quickly as possible.

But it’s difficult and dangerous to quickly search a large building. Police don’t usually have interior maps of schools, shopping malls, or hotels. Nor do they have a fast, reliable way to transmit such maps to the front lines.

At BU, three technology companies teamed up to meet the challenge.

BeSafe Technologies Inc., of Hyannis, has created digital floor plans for more than 1,000 buildings. They include public schools in over 20 percent of the communities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, as well as school buildings in California and Florida. BeSafe maps show where to cut off electricity, gas, or water and point out rooms that may contain hazardous materials.

The maps are stored in a secure database that can be accessed instantly by police and fire departments.

“Police can log in on their laptop in their vehicle and they can pull up all the information,’’ said chief executive Tom McDonald, a former superintendent of the Barnstable school system.

BeSafe doesn’t cover the BU campus, but the company prepared a map of the building used for the exercise. This map appeared in Casey’s eyepiece, thanks to Diginonymous LLC, a Seminole, Fla. company that makes secure communications gear for the US military.

Its Digigone system can connect to a Wi-Fi service, or users can bring their own portable hot spots, dropping them throughout a building to create an instant communications network for voice, video, and data.

For instance, Digigone relayed the images from Casey’s video camera to colleagues outside. Meanwhile, his fellow officers had tapped into the building’s security camera network to send Casey live video of the room where the shooter was hiding.

All transmissions are encrypted, to ensure that an attacker can’t tap in. Yet the system is compatible with off-the-shelf computers that run Microsoft Corp.’s Windows software. Any officer with a Windows Mobile smartphone can log onto Digigone and watch the incident unfold.

To manage the data, Casey used a $20,000 portable computer from SpecOps Systems Inc. that is used by US soldiers in combat zones. The processing unit, about the size of a hardcover book, can be dropped from 100 feet or immersed in over 60 feet of water without being damaged. It features a “kill switch’’ that can instantly wipe away all stored data in case the user is captured.

“We’re planning to make a family of these wearable computers,’’ said SpecOps president Caroline Tucker. A version for police and firefighters, due next month, won’t have to be as rugged and won’t need the kill switch. Because of that, Tucker plans to sell it for $5,000.

The BU test did uncover a few bugs. Casey’s camera, mounted on one strap of the backpack, often faced the wrong way, so a future version will probably be worn on the head. But overall, the campus police were impressed.

“It worked very well,’’ Casey said. “It’s going to be invaluable to those first responders.’’

Still, currently there is no way to buy the computer and the communications and mapping services as a single product.

Tucker said SpecOps, BeSafe, and Diginonymous are discussing a partnership that would create an integrated offering for police and fire departments. After his tests in Boston and Somerville, Thomas predicted, such a product would be an easy sell.

“Everyone has said, Yeah, we need this,’’ he said.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at