Speaking the same language
Standards are critical for information sharing to work
The Federal Communications Commission's new national broadband network for public safety will enable first responders to share data throughout much of the country starting as soon as 2009. But the new pipeline probably won't achieve its full potential until more standards and systems for such data exchanges are widely adopted, according to experts.
The FCC-authorized network is being established as a commercial system that must be available for emergency use by public safety agencies. Construction is expected to begin in 2009, and the network must reach 75 percent of the nation's population by 2013.
Taking full advantage of the new network will likely mean completion and integration of existing standards and development of additional features, such as those for controlling access to the network and possibly for validating the identities of safety officials using the network.
"We're in the early stages here for true information sharing," said David Aylward, director at the Comcare Alliance, a nonprofit group focused on improving emergency communications. "Right now, public safety still is using phones and e-mail to share data."
Although information-sharing standards for homeland security are advancing, much of the technical work has followed separate paths.
For example, state and local agencies are adopting the Global Justice and National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) data models to help police agencies, prisons, courts and sheriff's departments share data. The Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), an open standard enabling emergency managers to quickly distribute public warning alerts to one another and the public, has made substantial inroads among state, local and federal agencies in the three years since its creation. The Hospital Availability Exchange, a standard that will soon be released, lets hospitals exchange information automatically on topics such as the number of beds available and whether their emergency rooms are full.
The existing standards, although effective in their spheres, are not yet integrated with one another. The NIEM, managed by the Homeland Security and Justice departments, is providing a central repository.
"Now that a single framework, NIEM, has been established, it will still take time for the domains, including emergency management, to vet the standard and make sure it works within their existing infrastructure," said Michael Berman, vice president of sales and marketing at Crossflo Systems Inc., of San Diego.
But those are only early steps. In addition, there is a need for a next generation of standards that deal not only with technology but also with governance, policy, access control, identity management, network coordination and ownership of the information, Aylward and others said.
Common messaging brokers, for example, would set the paths for emergency alerts and notices to determine who gets what type of message, when and with what priority. Private carriers usually develop such brokering systems and don't share them with rivals, Aylward said.
Another next-generation project would be to set up access controls for all system users and choose management systems to validate their identities, he said. That would help ensure that only the people authorized to publish an alert or warning can do so.
"The tendency so far has been to develop data standards and message standards, and not to focus on these higher-level core services," Aylward said.
Data sharing on a national scale is still an experiment, Berman said. "We all know it needs to happen. It's a matter of how to do it. The maturation of these standards with the help of industry will make using the FCC national broadband network a reality."
Several recent bursts of activity in developing common formats for information sharing have heightened awareness of the issues ahead for the FCC network and similar systems. In July, FCC issued a proposed rule stating that CAP would be a foundation of the nation's next-generation Emergency Alert System. Also in July, federal authorities released Version 2.0 of the NIEM. In June, the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards completed its public comment period for the most recent draft of the proposed Emergency Data Exchange Language resource messaging standard, which is a suite of formats for requests for, and provisions of, workers, emergency equipment and supplies such as water and vehicles.
For the existing and upcoming standards to work together, they must use the same terms and formats. But although NIEM has incorporated emergency management and medical terms into its universal lexicon, NIEM administrators say that so far the model is not widely used beyond law enforcement agencies.
"We have not yet reached a tipping point" into convergence, said Paul Wormeli, executive director at the Integrated Justice Information Systems Institute, a nonprofit corporation that released NIEM 2.0 on behalf of DHS and Justice. Even so, Wormeli is optimistic about NIEM and CAP working together.
"CAP and NIEM have come together. People are using both to implement information exchange," Wormeli said.
But other experts say the emergency management and medical communities have not yet adopted the data dictionary used in the NIEM, which was put together by law enforcement personnel primarily for their own purposes.
"If you have the justice community looking at what is universal, that does not make it universal," Aylward said. "You need medical, 911, transportation and emergency management people sitting there."
The frustration of officials who are unable to efficiently communicate during emergencies drives the demand for public saftely data and messaging standards. For example, emergency managers typically juggle multiple phone calls and send numerous e-mail messages to spread the word about a major highway accident. If automated data exchange systems were in place, they could more easily distribute the message.
"This is a market that is still in its baby-steps stage," said Dick Munnikhuysen, the practice lead for homeland security at Battelle Memorial Institute, a systems integrator serving federal and state agencies.
"The broadband network is a pipe; now we are talking about the water that will flow through the pipe," he said.Staff writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at email@example.com.