Polk County Sheriff: News Network Shares Information

Article by Nancy Caronia, Government Video Magazine

Florida’s Polk County has a population of 550,000 situated within 210,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of Rhode Island. That can make it challenging for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, which houses inmates in the county’s jail facilities in addition to its crime prevention duties, to communicate effectively with its 1,700 employees and the general public.

In order to improve internal and external communications between the PCSO, its offices and employees, the court system, schools, and the community at large, the PCSO secured grant monies to establish an electronic information display network (EIDN) within seven PCSO law enforcement and detention facilities.

Named the Sheriff News Network, PCSO chose Visix’s AxisTV digital signage software to sit at the center of the system. The Web-based software technology permits access through a single Web hosting content server, which delivers updates to remote channel players that output audio and video to the EIDN.

One of the major reasons the PCSO turned to digital signage, according to Scott H. Wilder, MPA, CPM, director of communications, PCSO, is that people like their information now via video and audio. “It’s difficult to get people to sit down and read memorandums,” he offered. “That’s what brokered this decision. We have external channels through the SNN — and in the areas where the public has access or is in our buildings, we do customer service type of communication bulletins. In this way we are able to reinforce the agency message and culture to employees while providing information to the Polk County general population.”

The seven PCSO facilities were outfitted with 42-inch Panasonic monitors and Toshiba TVs, and has operational since February. One display unit was placed in each lobby for external messages, and as many as eight different displays were set up in each location for internal communication with PCSO employees.

At the PCSO, the Office of Communications chose to divide its internal displays into three sections. One-half of the display screen posts critical messages such as Crime Stoppers Most Wanted bulletins, proactive crime-fighting initiatives, logistical, tactical, and intelligence information, and training announcements. The other half of the screen is divided into two sections — Fox News is broadcast 24/7 in the upper portion and the lower half is reserved for messages such as birthday wishes or upcoming sports tournaments. External displays in the lobby enable visitors to the courts or detention centers to view the PCSO’s Polk Sheriff 24/7, which also airs on PGTV, Polk County’s government access cable channel, and a number of other PSAs produced by the PCSO’s Office of Communications.

The Office of Communications has a production studio housed in a space within the old jail. “When we opened our new jail, it completely opened the old jail facility here. We’ve been here for two years and we converted space into a small studio and an office space for me,” said Matt Costine, video production manager, PCSO. “We do a lot of public service announcements and a lot of training. We just finished producing radio PSAs with the sheriff for the local stations reminding drivers to slow down for kids going back to school.

“On the training side, we do different topics each month. And mingled in with all of that are community spotlights,” he continued. “Recently a new dog park was opened, and it was named for one of our officers and his dog who were killed in the line of duty. So, we produced a small spot about that and it will be posted on Polk Sheriff 24/7.”

The studio is a 30×35-foot space with one wall painted for a green screen effect using Serious Magic (now Adobe) Ultra. A small voiceover recording studio is housed in a converted storage closet. There are two Sony DSR-PD150 camcorders; one resides in-house and one stays with Costine when he goes out in the field to shoot events (he is a one-man production team). Shure microphones are used in house and Sony wireless lavs are used in the field. All footage is shot on mini-DV and edited in Adobe Premiere Pro 2.0.

“We do everything on a shoestring and it works out somehow,” said Wilder. “We’re thrilled with AxisTV. There is always a learning curve. The more we use it and play with the different features, it’s going to be even better.”

AVI was the systems integrator and handled the installation for all seven sites including the hardware, wiring between monitors and channel players, and wall and ceiling mounts for the displays. In addition, AVI built equipment racks for the video distribution gear and channel players, according to Bobby Green, sales engineer, AVI. The entire project cost approximately $200,000, excluding training, and the installation was completed in about five business days. There were an additional four online training sessions as well as one in-house training day.

The PCSO Office of Communications maintains the system’s content server, trains additional users, and approves and schedules all bulletins on the displays. A third-party broker, WebX, maintains security access. Content creators with the appropriate security clearance can update information on SNN on a daily basis. Each individual must log on to the system in order to create, revise, edit, or approve content.

According to Visix president Sean Matthews, the security is “controlled very tightly” due to the public and private displays. “When a channel player is set up, the sheriff would have access to all the playlists including public safety announcements and other general population information, but the community contributor would only have access to the general playlist. The channel player in the lobby of a facility is only programmed for PSAs, but the one in the deputy locker room is programmed to output information suitable for the internal population of the PCSO.”

Access for content creators is done through user roles, the standard identification program in Microsoft Windows XP, a custom version of which is embedded in each AxisTV channel player. In this way, an intern who is creating content will have some security clearance, but content will need to be approved before it’s published on the displays. Channel players support both static and dynamic IP addresses, which enables remote access.

“Those who process approval will receive e-mail notification when a piece is ready for review. That individual receives a thumbnail image on their cell phone, for example, or could log onto a PC to review, edit, or post it,” noted Matthews. “The content a user imports can be delivered to media players, screen savers, popup messages — it can even be embedded in a Web page or read on a Blackberry. Users could even send content as a text message to a cell phone. It’s much more than digital signage.”

“We have a good internal network, but we were worried about streaming this information across our network — we have hundreds of deputies using it at the same time,” Wilder explained. “AxisTV pushes the video and audio through and loads it on the PCs at each of our facilities, so when it’s not running across our network, it’s playing on our PCs.

“One of the things about SNN, just like in any marketing campaign, you don’t send the message out once – you send it again and again. That’s one of the things we get from AxisTV, and we want to try to do more of that now that the network has been set up.”