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Companies develop <@SM>emergency communications solutions for info sharing, rapid response

Ron McCallum, director of homeland security programs for Anteon's Intelligence Systems Division, demonstrates SIRIXS and its mobility in the field.

Henrik G. de Gyor

Web site and e-mail traffic spiked Sept. 11, 2001. Worldwide, people were trying to find out what happened and locate loved ones after terrorists struck New York and Washington. But accurate information was hard to find, and some communications systems overloaded, including government Web sites.

To solve these problems, Terra Lycos SA is proposing the creation of an online emergency broadcast system that would cost the federal government about $1 million to set up, said Tim Wright, chief information officer and chief technology officer for the Internet service provider, headquartered in Barcelona, Spain.

Terra Lycos would develop the proposal for free and use its 3,500 servers to support it, he said.

"For the government to do this [alone], they'd have to build an infrastructure. It would cost a fortune," he said.

Terra Lycos is one of many companies offering new solutions for improved emergency communications. Anteon International Corp. of Fairfax, Va., a well-known player in the federal market, has adapted off-the-shelf software and GIS data to develop a first responders system that provides a common view of emergency situations to improve resource coordination.

Accela Inc. of South San Francisco has developed a suite of emergency preparedness products designed to capitalize on its experience in the state and local market.

Companies with promising solutions are getting more attention from government clients, particularly at the state and local level, where officials are hoping to tap into the $3.5 billion in first responder funds that President Bush asked for in the fiscal 2003 federal budget.

"The market is assured because it is government funded," said Rob Enderle, a research fellow with Giga Information Group Inc., an IT research firm in Cambridge, Mass. First responder funding may go even higher than $3.5 billion if the United States takes military action against Iraq, tensions with North Korea escalate or another terrorist attack hits the United States, he said.

For the proposed online emergency broadcast system, Terra Lycos wants to build a Web site and catalog of documents addressing emergencies such as biological, chemical or physical attacks, Wright said. The documents would be created in extensible markup language, a global standard for Web content.

In an emergency, documents would be selected for display, and the site would go live, replacing Terra Lycos sites on the Web. Other Internet service providers, such as Yahoo! and MSN, could also join the effort. Federal employees would update the information.

Wright said the system should be housed in the Department of Homeland Security. He has proposed it to the Office of Homeland Security and is awaiting a response.

"There needs to be a point of dissemination within the government that controls the editing and prioritization of these alerts," Wright said. "The best place for that is the Department of Homeland Security."

The Terra Lycos solution has promise, said Peter Ward, chairman of the board of the Partnership for Public Warning in McLean, Va.

"It can be done quite simply, but it would take a great deal to get it adopted," Ward said. "The problem is where you get the information and how you get it out. You have to get a lot of people to agree. That takes time and energy."

 

CRISIS COMMUNICATIONS

Anteon's Secure Infrastructure for Rapid Information Exchange Solution (SIRIXS), a first-responder system, capitalizes on the firm's experience building secure communications networks for the intelligence community. The system integrates data from agencies such as fire, emergency, medical and law enforcement, allowing decision-makers and first responders to see assets available during a crisis.

SIRIXS uses existing infrastructure and off-the-shelf hardware and software supported by geographic information system data to generate a common, shared situational picture. Its secure collaboration capabilities include voice and video over IP, e-mail, bulletin boards and GIS data exchange.

Ron McCallum, director of homeland security programs for Anteon's Intelligence Systems Division, said state and local authorities are particularly interested in the solution. Anteon employees consulted with Virginia's emergency responders about what they wanted a system to do, and their input was used to develop the first prototype.

"We wanted to make sure we were doing what they needed," McCallum said.

Anteon has demonstrated the system for the Orange County government in Florida, using a scenario of a freight train wreck resulting in a chlorine tanker overturn. At the county emergency operations center, SIRIXS was used to arrange a conference call tying in onsite commanders with police, fire and public health officials.

Dispatch centers were polled on their available assets. Those assets were displayed on large monitors in each center, with pictures that could be shared with state and federal authorities. Wireless capabilities allowed onsite commanders to e-mail video to the operations center or to call for help from surrounding communities or the federal government.

A variety of off-the-shelf software generated a picture of the evacuation area, showed police how to shut down traffic and launched alert systems. GIS data identified at-risk populations, such as hospitals and schools.

The system cost is in the five-figure range, with a full cradle-to-grave managed solution in the low six figures, McCallum said.

Joe Lees, executive director of the Homeland Protection Institute in Herndon, Va., said Anteon's solution is technically excellent.

"The kind of information integration and communication they offer is really needed, particularly for large complex disaster events where time is critical," he said.

But Lees said many barriers stand in the way of responders who want to acquire these solutions.

"Federal monies for new homeland security capability have not come as quickly or been as robust as people expected," Lees said. "Second, these kinds of integrated information tools require lots of intergovernmental cooperation. That's not easy, because responders are accountable to different political leaders who may have different priorities."

 

EMERGENCY

PREPAREDNESS


Accela's new software suite, Emergency Response System, Bio-Health Alert and Uptime, facilitates damage assessment, bioterrorism alerts and infectious disease monitoring and enables data restoration if users' systems go down.

With Emergency Response System, field inspectors fill out damage assessment forms on personal digital assistants. Then maps are created that can be printed or e-mailed to enable fast, accurate allocation of relief resources. The capability stems from the firm's software for building inspectors.

Bio-Health Alert automates and integrates multiple surveillance systems to speed response to a bioterrorism attack or infectious disease outbreak. It adheres to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards for a computer tracking system for disease.

"We are talking to some of the biggest counties in the United States about instituting this system. There is expected to be considerable dollars allocated to these systems" in the 108th Congress, said Maury Blackman, Accela's vice president of marketing.

Uptime allows governments to recover their emergency software systems remotely if in-house systems fail.

"Events always start locally. That's where our software is -- on the front line. That's why we think it is a very natural extension of our product set," said Robert Lee, Accela's president and chief executive officer.

Implementing the suite could cost $100,000 to $1 million for software and services, depending on jurisdiction size, Lee said.

There is opportunity for systems integrators to work with the solution.

"They might get a contract with a big state or county and want to bring our solution in. It does happen quite a bit," Blackman said.

Integrated information solutions "should be a priority for government at all levels," Lees said. "We must find ways to overcome the natural tendency to trade off information-type solutions for more tangible and easily met individual needs, like a new fire truck." *

Staff Writer Gail Repsher Emery can be reached at gemery@postnewsweektech.com.

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