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. The underlying protocols of each device 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 and to communicate with school officials.

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 network.

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, 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.

The CoCo technology is being tested in four schools in the Manassas, Va., area. A deployment of the software also is underway at Seattle’s Franklin High School.

See these related links:

Prince William County Public Schools

CoCo Communications Corp.

U.S. Department of Justice