By Bill Lowery's estimate, fewer than 1 percent of all public safety departments have in-car computers. Big-city departments are cost-conscious--MDCs cost about $5,000 per unit, not to mention the cost of radios and modems and other peripheral equipment. Customers tend to be midsize departments ordering 50 to 250 units, especially those departments that can raise funds through asset-forfeiture programs (selling the belongings of criminals). They usually start out using the machines in the same way they used that last generation of "dumb" terminals, mostly for license checks and dispatches. The machines do much more.

Built into the box are receivers that pick up signals from Global Positioning Satellites orbiting the Earth. The computer can triangulate its own location in terms of longitude and latitude from the GPS signals, then radio that information automatically back to the station's computer, which can then track the car's location across a map on a dispatcher's screen.

The MDC has ports that can accommodate a variety of plugged-in peripheral attachments. It is already possible to equip a car with a digital camera so that police officers could photograph suspects and radio those images to the station.

"Better than that," says Lowery, "within a few years, they'll have a fingerprint reader in the car. You take the guy's thumbprint, send it back to NCIC [the FBI's record center], and they'll tell you who he is."

One attachment that already exists is an overhead projector that will beam the image on the PC's screen onto a rearview-mirror-size screen that makes it look as if it is suspended over the dashboard of the car. The officer can then read the screen without looking down. The projected image can be seen through, so it doesn't block the cop's line of sight.

MobileData also has programs for fire departments and utility companies. The fire program automatically keeps track of how long firefighters have been inside a building or out on the fire line. It allows fire commanders to sketch in hose lines or buildings just by using a finger on the screen as a drawing instrument.

"L.A. Fire was interested in [topographical maps] because they have so many canyons," says Lowery. "They want to be able to put in the previous burn areas because those are the natural fire channels. If it's burned before, it's probably going to burn the same way again."

West Covina's success with the MDC brought in other police departments for a look-see. Pasadena officials were so impressed, they've ordered the units for their police squad cars and helicopters. MobileData is also closing deals in South Florida and the Midwest.

Back home in Phoenix, they've been overshadowed by their neighbors at Motorola. The Phoenix Police Department has recently installed Motorola units in all of its squad cars and some of its unmarked cars, and it uses them essentially as "dumb" terminals.

Motorola, meanwhile, is entering into agreement with MobileData to let the Motorola sales force represent the MDC, perhaps as a concession to its quality.

Terry Sewell, a former Flagstaff police officer who works for a systems integrator (a firm that puts custom computer systems together) in Lexington, Kentucky, says, "When you put the two side by side, the customer will always pick the MDC. It's a full-blown computer with a touch screen. It has more functions, more features, and it's lower cost. That's basically it in a nutshell."

Sewell just sold the system to the Salt River-Pima Community tribal police department. MobileData's right here in town. Sometimes it takes an out-of-towner's recommendation to steer you back home.

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