Homeland Security Tracks Fleet via Satellite

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Detention and Removal Operations employs a “smart GPS” system to track and monitor its far-flung 4,500-unit fleet.

January 2010, Government Fleet - Feature

by Staff

With about 4,500 vehicles operating nationwide, including in remote border areas, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office of Detention and Removal Operations (DRO) is well versed in the challenges of monitoring and maintaining a large government fleet in real-time.

Charles Welke, a DRO program management analyst, likens the task to managing ants in an ant farm. “Unless you can tag them, you don’t know one from the other, or where they’re going, or how many there are,” he said.

Essentially, DRO has begun doing just that. In September, the agency started rolling out a satellite tracking system to monitor its fleet of buses, specialty vans, and law-enforcement sedans, used to detain and remove illegal immigrants. The system relies on the Iridium satellite network to transmit position coordinates and other data from the vehicles.

The “smart GPS” system, manufactured and supplied by Fleet Management Solutions Inc. (FMS), automatically records and transmits each vehicle’s location, direction of travel, speed, and other telematics data that help DRO monitor its far-flung fleet. The FMS system is designed to give DRO a constant situational awareness of its vehicles and personnel, as well as detainees transported from one location to another.
“We designed our tracking solution for DRO around the Iridium short-burst data (SBD) service because of its worldwide coverage, low latency, and high network reliability,” said Cliff Henley, FMS CEO. “DRO needed reliable real-time information from their vehicles.”

Data messages from vehicles travel up to an Iridium satellite. Transmissions are downloaded to Iridium’s gateway in Tempe, Ariz., where they are patched through to the FMS Fleet Central Web server. DRO fleet controllers access the data via a Web page and view vehicle locations on an electronic map display.

Maintenance Improved
In addition to providing vehicle locations, the FMS system will help DRO improve fleet maintenance and alert supervisors to bad driving habits, such as speeding, hard braking, and jackrabbit starts that can be dangerous, add to vehicle wear and tear, and waste fuel, according to Henley.

The system is “very event-driven. Instead of constantly polling for the status and location of a vehicle, the modem will report an event or activity. If someone is speeding, for example, the modem will recognize that as an event and send out a text-message alert,” Henley explained.

Officer Safety Enhanced
As vehicles are equipped with the system, DRO monitors the units in real-time from one central location and from field dispatch offices — a critical capability when personnel are involved in potentially dangerous law-enforcement operations. By November, about 150 DRO vehicles had been outfitted with the system.

“This is going to increase officer safety, and it’s going to extend the lifecycle of our vehicles,” said Welke, who oversees the project. “The expectations are that this is going to contribute tremendously to a more efficient and effective fleet and, down the line, it’s going to save taxpayers millions of dollars.”

DRO serves as the primary enforcement arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), charged with ensuring the safe and fair removal of unauthorized aliens. The agency operates in all major U.S. cities, with a concentration of operations in the South and along the country’s Southwestern border.

“Our global coverage means that enterprise customers operating across national boundaries can standardize on a single data communications architecture while avoiding excessive roaming charges from cellular service providers,” said Patrick Shay, vice president of Iridium’s data division.

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