D.C. moves toward wireless first-responder system

Satellite communication vans from emergency response agencies from throughout the national capital region?Washington, adjoining jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia, federal agencies and the military?converged on vacant city property in December 2005 to practice collaborating in an anti-terrorism mass casualty exercise.

But there was a glitch.

"We had all the vans there, but we couldn't talk to each other," Barbara Childs-Pair, director of the District of Columbia Emergency Management Agency, said today during a presentation at the FOSE government IT trade show in Washington. FOSE is sponsored by PostNewsweek Tech Media, the parent company of Washington Technology.

The vans could not be positioned to obtain the necessary satellite coverage that would enable the agencies communicate directly with each other, Childs-Pair said.

The first responders in that drill switched over to the city's Wireless Accelerated Responder Network (WARN), a citywide wireless broadband network demonstration project, which enabled easier communications.

WARN was initiated in September 2004 under a special license granted by the Federal Communications Commission. It enables first responders to use voice over IP and to access high-speed data feeds, such as live video, on their laptop computers.

"It was much easier to get a signal with WARN than with the satellites," said Robert LeGrande II, deputy chief technology officer for the district.

Under plans that have been in development for nine months, wireless broadband capabilities for public safety are extending to the region, LeGrande said.

The District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia counties and localities, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, federal and military offices and the Homeland Security Department's Office of National Capital Region Coordination are working on three new regional IT initiatives for public safety: a wireless broadband network, a wired fiber optics network of networks for exchanging data, and a data exchange hub, LeGrande said.

The region expects to roll out the first phase of the new interoperable data system in December at a cost of about $11.8 million, paid for with an Urban Area Security Initiative federal grant, LeGrande said. "This is all being done with regional partnerships," he added.

The tri-level data interoperability system would offer new capabilities to first responders, such as credentialing, evacuee identification and medical information collection at a disaster scene. Wireless broadband will offer real-time connectivity and voice communications through VoIP, while the fiber optics network will be used primarily for moving large amounts of data. The data exchange hub will convert data into interoperable formats.

Though the new system has some voice capabilities, those capabilities will only augment, but not replace, the existing mission-critical radio systems for voice communications used by fire, police and emergency medical responders in the region, LeGrande said.

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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