Virginia’s Prince William County Public Schools are piloting a new type of software that aims to permit communication across a wide range of devices that school systems already have–including cell phones, two-way radios, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and even video cameras. If the software works as intended, it could improve emergency preparedness by creating secure, multi-platform lines of communication between school campuses and federal, state, and local first responders.

The purchase of the CoCo protocol software from CoCo Communications Corp. was funded by a one-time grant of $246,661 earmarked by Congress and funded through the U.S. Department of Justice (JD).

The pilot project is meant to demonstrate that wired, wireless voice, and data network hardware already in place in public schools and used by first responders in emergency situations can be cost-effectively modified with software to become interoperable. The CoCo network–named for the Cryptographic Overlay Mesh Protocol (COMP) on which it is based–is intended to enable better real-time communication among school administrators, staff, and emergency first responders via a secure network that uses a school system’s existing communications infrastructure.

The deployment of the CoCo software is expected to make Prince William County a national model for facilitating first-responder communications with schools. The pilot is intended as a first step toward establishing a National School Protection Network as proposed by JD. Federal government officials hope the project will encourage schools around the country to improve their emergency preparedness and campus security through new advanced communication technology.

“The security of our students is our most important charge, so deploying the technology endorsed by [JD] was an easy decision once we understood its utility and benefits,” said Prince William County Superintendent Steven Walts. “This technology made possible by CoCo Communications gives schools the ability to ensure secure links between schools and public safety officials.”

The company says the CoCo protocol that permits secure cross-platform interoperability of communications devices was developed as a response to solving the communications problems encountered at the time of the 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States.

The communications are processed through a dedicated server in Prince William County. Device-specific versions of the CoCo software are loaded onto district and emergency communications devices and are used to carry out a protocol translation that enables communication among these various devices. From device to device, the underlying protocols become mute if the enabling networks are loaded with the software overlay.

“Access to the system can be granted by the district to any organization or individual,” said Steve George, director of information technology for the Prince William County Public Schools. “At that point, the user can pick up a PDA and make a secure connection to the video server through the application running on the device.”

George said first responders in an emergency can use their own hardware devices loaded with the CoCo software to view video from cameras inside the school building.

“They could communicate with officials in the building and view video to know, for instance, whether or not to open [a particular] door in an emergency situation,” George said.

CoCo says its protocol does not conform to conventional “stack” or open system interconnection (ISO) programming models, which allow for security breaches on the network level and do not lend themselves easily to protocol interoperability. The CoCo protocol instead was engineered using cryptography to command nearly every system, according to the company. The software reportedly allows for quality-of-service controls, network scaling properties, and programming that prioritizes access to the networks.

CoCo Communications’ software is similar to technologies collectively known as mesh, ad-hoc, or peer-to-peer networking, but the company says the programming that defines the CoCo protocol is distinct. Like peer-to-peer technologies, however, instead of depleting the network’s operating capacity when you add new devices, the software creates a mesh in which every device that accesses the network adds to its infrastructure, acting as its own router. The company says the network gets larger as more users come online. Traditional networks have capacities that eventually are filled as users log onto the network.

“CoCo understood that the federal government can’t deploy a fully open networking solution like the classic peer-to-peer made famous by Napster,” the peer-to-peer file-sharing network brought to trial for copyright violation earlier in the decade, said company spokesman Mike Brennan. “So they took cryptographic programming and developed a secure peer-to-peer network.”

Brennan said the Coast Guard has been the most aggressive in seeking funding for CoCo technologies, as the networking capacity of the software reportedly allows boarding parties to inspect the deep hulls of freighters and not lose their signal through the layers of metal.

“Typically, schools are built very well, to the point where most cellular [technology] has little or no service within the building,” Prince William County’s George said.

CoCo Communications’ software, he said, makes two-way radios commonly used among first responders compatible with other commonly deployed devices, including cellular phones, laptops, and PDAs in use by emergency personnel and local school officials. The result is a common interface that can be shared by all available networking resources.

“There is a lot of public investment in existing communications networks, especially the land-based, two-way radios that support first responders,” said CoCo’s Brennan. “These networks are all disparate, and there’s a lot of disconnect.”

He added: “By taking a software approach to tying these disparate hardware [devices] together, we can preserve that legacy investment made in public and commercial networks that already serve us. It’s just a matter of getting them to ‘speak’ to each other, if you will.”

The CoCo technology is being tested in four schools in the Manassas, Va., area. Prince William County’s George described the initial assessment and design phase of the security system’s deployment as “going very well.” A deployment of the software also is underway at Franklin High School in Seattle.


Links:

Prince William County Public Schools
http://www.pwcs.edu

CoCo Communications Corp.
http://www.cococorp.com

U.S. Department of Justice
http://www.usdoj.gov