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Germany

The Ultimate Weapon

The traditional police and public safety radio is about to get replaced by a futuristic new device that can send encrypted messages, photos, finger prints and anything else that might be needed at the scene of a crime.

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German Chanceller Gerhard Schröder test drives the Tetra communications system

For special police operations, clear communication is essential. And for firefighters, consistent and quick information both before and during an operation can be a matter of life and death.

But in Germany, the emergency services still use analog radio. The police union says that the old system is outdated.

"The current system, which is analog, can be very prone to disturbance, can be easily overloaded," says Werner Kasel, the state director for the Rhineland-Palatinate chapter of the national police union. "And it is not very compatible with the systems of other organisations and emergency services, such as the fire service, customs, the border police and the Federal Relief Agency."

Another problem, officials say, is that anyone, including criminals and home hobbyists, can listen in using inexpensively obtained scanners.

A future system should be disruption-free, confidential and able to be shared by the police, fire service, border police and other emergency services.

Introducing Tetra

For that reason, the government is enlisting the help of big mobile phone companies to build a new, entirely digital radio network, which uses the international Terrestrial Trunk Radio (TETRA) standard. Not only is the new system supposed to be secure, but it will also be capable of transmitting pictures and text as well as sound. Images of fingerprints could even be transmitted in order to make on-the-scene criminal forensics easier.

It will also be possible to send scanned images of suspects' faces to make identification easier.

"It means that police tactics will involve measures that are completely different than before," Kasel says. "And on top of speech transmission, Tetra allows us to send pictures of relevant maps or other material, or even short videos, which would be an enormous advantage."

A cool million

The installation of the Tetra system will involve the assembly of up to 3,500 radio masts and around a million mobile radios. Data will be sent using standard Internet protocol. An encryption system will make eavesdropping next to impossible, giving police an advantage over organized criminals. Additionally, Tetra will give officers access to the international crime-fighting database created by Interpol.

The Tetra project is expected to cost around 6 billion euro ($5.8 billion). An early version of the system is currently being tested in the area surrounding the city of Aachen, and the initial feedback has been positive. Its speed and sound quality, in particular, have been praised.

Tried and tested concept

In Chicago, public safety authorities are already using a system similar to Tetra. The information channels between the headquarters of the police, fire departments and rescue services are networked using the system. That means, for example, that firefighters at the scene of a fire can keep track of all police communication channels, such as telephone conversations and transmissions of images.

As yet, there is no widespread digital radio network in Europe like the one in Chicago. But the plan is to have Tetra up and running before Germany hosts the next World Cup in 2006.

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