Data interoperability and accessibility

For many years, data was the forgotten stepchild of public safety communications, but recently it
has moved closer to the forefront. Although geographic data has been available in emergency
operations centers run by cities and counties, it now is being offered on mobile devices. The operations
centers also use the geographic data more comprehensively in applications for situational
awareness, a common operating picture and resource tracking.

Many vendors have adopted the open-source Common Alerting Protocol for transmitting emergency
messages, although the Federal Emergency Management Agency has not yet made it an
official standard. FEMA officials recently said they are close to adopting CAP.

"The CAP is evolving and has become more popular," said Jim Montagnino, president of NC4,
a provider of comprehensive emergency management solutions based in El Segundo, Calif. "We were one of the first adopters of CAP."

NC4 provides a comprehensive tool for situational awareness and resource tracking, along with
a dashboard of pie charts and other updated information for easy reference. It expects to be
adding weather information, school closures and power outages to the system soon, Montagnino

Large systems integrators such as Northrop Grumman Corp. also have gotten involved in integrating
emergency operations centers for large cities along with ports, mass transit systems and
other critical infrastructure. The company combines wireless broadband installations with software
for the operations centers, communications and mobile devices in the field. Clients include New
York City, Indianapolis and Corpus Christi, Texas.

The key to persuading response agencies to adopt new technologies, such as mobile handsets
for data, is to provide features they find irresistible, said Bruce Walker, vice president of strategic
planning at Northrop Grumman's Information Technology division.

"If you are just delivering call forwarding and voice mail, I am not sure you can justify the cost,"
Walker said. "But if you can deliver addresses, phone numbers, accident details, car titles, etc.,
you can more easily justify the higher cost."

Despite progress by many operations centers, what is lacking is a centralized system for tracking
resources and sharing information among the centers, said Mark Ghilarducci, vice president of
the western region office of James Lee Witt Associates, an emergency management consulting

"What we don't have is a national system for states to talk with each other and with the federal
government" to share resources, he said. Ideally, the resource-tracking system would automatically
update the costs of the disaster and area of impact.

In addition, IT experts would need to be available during disaster response to ensure that
e-mailed resource requests don't get lost in the system, he said. For example, in one disaster in
California, there was a request for a water rescue team to go immediately to a location. The message
was lost, and the team was not dispatched until a phone call was made.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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