Iowa: Allamakee County Sheriff’s Department Welcomes GPS Technology

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It is well known that cell phones are becoming a must-have thanks to all that these little devices can do. Beyond texting and making phone calls, people all over the world are checking their social media accounts, posting photos in a variety of photo-sharing apps, checking their email, keeping shopping lists, and clipping coupons. For the majority of these actions, GPS technology is the key. Yes, one can use a handy GPS app to help guide them in unfamiliar territory, but GPS is also used when checking in to a location on Facebook, tagging a photo location in Instagram, and even finding the local Home Depot based on your current location.


These same technological advances have aided law enforcement in many aspects of their day-to-day routine. Whether it’s responding to an emergency more quickly, keeping our officers safe while on duty, or better access to digital records, it simply makes the job a little bit easier. The Allamakee County Sheriff’s Department in Iowa is the latest to put GPS technology to work for their officers, from dispatch to squad car.


GPS and Dispatch

As with any community, the dispatch center for Allamakee County is the heart of emergency services for the county. The dispatch center deals with each and every call requesting ambulance, fire, or law enforcement response. Deputy Sheriff Clark Mellick estimated 9,800 emergency calls came in during 2011 alone. This figure does not include business-related and routine calls that come in on a daily basis, 24 hours a day. The phone system is hooked up to a computer recording system. When a call comes in, whether it is a land line or cell phone, the location is plotted on a map instantly as well as the GPS coordinates, closest nearby address, and which emergency service should respond to that specific location. This information is transmitted wirelessly to officers on duty in their cars, along with detailed information on how to reach the location including an aerial image. The dispatchers can see on the map on their screen where each ambulance and squad car is located, assuring response time is quick.


Mellick provided an example of this technology in action, recounting a story of a woman and her child. The woman used her cell phone to contact dispatch, saying she was hiding with her child in the bushes on a sand bar along the Mississippi River from her boyfriend, who was threatening her life. He was on his way back to their boat to retrieve his gun, and she needed help. She didn’t know precisely where she was, but dispatchers were able to pinpoint her exact GPS location. They gave the coordinates to officers who searched with handheld GPS devices, finding them safe and sound. The boyfriend was found shortly thereafter, passed out drunk.


GPS location data is also useful in the event of a chemical spill. The mapping system in place at the dispatch center takes into account wind direction and speed to calculate which areas should be evacuated. The sheriff’s office then uses the Code-Red emergency notification system, where one phone call sends out a message to all residents in the designated area, warning them of any impending danger or the need to evacuate. The system will also show them which residents did not answer the phone for this call or when voicemail took the message.


GPS and Squad Cars

Each vehicle owned by the Sheriff’s Department features a camera that captures both audio and video. This not only makes the officer’s more accountable in certain situations, it gives ultimate proof at a suspect’s guilt. Mellick notes that courts expect that such evidence will be presented in most cases, and if there is not video evidence, attorneys demand to know why.


The cars also feature laptop computers which give them total access to area maps and records kept by the county and state, the same records available to the dispatch center. With the click of a button, officers can also access their daily briefing information, such as officer caution notices and BOLOs (be on the lookout). These laptops track the movements of their car plus the other squad cars on-duty as well, giving GPS data on all of their locations. If needed, the car comes with a handheld GPS device as well, for searches conducted outside of the vehicle.


Getting Their Money’s Worth

With all of the GPS capability and technological upgrades to the Sheriff’s Department, residents can be assured they are safe when an emergency arises. Mellick agreed, and said “The Allamakee County Sheriff’s Department has come a long way under the leadership of Sheriff Tim Heiderscheit. All of these upgrades have been purchased using funds from grants or from within the Department’s budget. All in all, I’d say the residents of Allamakee County are certainly getting their money’s worth.”

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Khristen Foss

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