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Tempe Wi-Fi: Firefighters, police are fans

The Arizona city's police and fire departments are big on a citywide broadband network. Arizona's Wi-Fi city Police who are online all the time

TEMPE, Ariz.--Hazardous materials specialist Al Jensen's working vehicle looks like a submarine on wheels.

The Tempe fire command van is crowned by an erectable roof mast, with a large video camera on top that monitors the scene of an accident or fire.

This is what Tempe gets for allowing a private contractor to build a Wi-Fi network within city limits: free access, assuming emergency officials are creative enough to make use of it. So far, they are. While to their municipal Wi-Fi network, the city's police and fire departments are putting it to work.

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Video: Arizona's Wi-Fi city
CNET News.com's Amanda Termen looks at how Tempe, Ariz., fire and emergency services use the municipal Wi-Fi network to deal with crises.

The pictures in Jensen's van are sent through the city wireless network to an emergency operation center, where important decisions can be made. "In my (business), you need to make some decisions really quick. That is what this allows us to do," he said.

As a specialist in hazardous materials, Jensen gets called in when there is a chemical leak or a suspicious substance that might pose a danger to the public. To find out, Jensen looks at it in a microscope. Often the pictures must be examined further. Through the wireless network, they can be e-mailed to a lab in seconds.

"We can find out what it is, what are the hazardous constituencies of the chemical, and we can get it cleaned up before it becomes a bigger problem," Jensen said.

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Video: Police who are online all the time
CNET News.com's Amanda Termen talked with Tempe, Ariz., police officers about how they use their municipal Wi-Fi system.

He can also pick up useful information on the Internet, such as the floor plans and chemical inventories of local industries, and keep them updated on a secured Web site.

Over at the police department, every officer carries a laptop. Very soon they will , getting mug shots and maps off the Internet out in the field.

The city also has a mobile command center vehicle, which is called out when there is a major crisis--a homicide, a major traffic accident or a lost child, for example. The bus has a wireless access point and an antenna for the city's wireless Internet network.

"We can run warrants on vehicles and people; it goes back wirelessly to national databases," said Joe Retkowski, a police detective. "For a lost kid we can download aerial city maps and plan out our perimeters of how we are going to search the area for that kid, house to house, street to street."

The last time he used it was in a homicide investigation a few weeks ago.

Soon every patrol car will have a wireless antenna, so officers can download mug shots of suspects or get aerial pictures of traffic conditions around a major accident.

"It makes the information basically at your fingertips instead of having the old way of using the phone and waiting for the information to get back," Retkowski said. "It helps you make quicker and better decisions."

The signals are encrypted and just as safe as the police radio, Retkowski said. "It is definitely more secure than a cell phone," he added.