A giant leap for first response

Cities move beyond walky-talkies and toward interoperability

The next time a terrorist attack or large-scale emergency strikes the District of Columbia, citizens will see the region's first responders respond in unison, said Washington Chief Technology Officer Suzanne Peck.

Through the combined use of a wired, broadband network and a wireless network covering Washington, 18 regional first-responder groups, together with those in the district and their federal counterparts, will be able to communicate seamlessly, share information and follow the orders of a single, unified regional command center.

The city's new $106 million Unified Communications Center, eight years in the making, opened Sept. 26, and puts first responders in the best position possible to deal with any emergency, Peck said. The center also has hardened physical security, including blast proof glass and 72 hours' worth of self-sustainability in case the area is severely damaged in a crisis.

Had the center been operational Sept. 11, 2001, it would have made a world of difference to first responders and Washington residents, Peck said.

"District government outbound voice communications would not have been jammed for several hours," Peck said.

The high volume of inbound 911 calls would have been triaged more rapidly, and real-time video streaming of events from the Pentagon crash site would have been available to first responders, she said. Transportation management of the city's evacuation also would have been greatly enhanced, she said.

The new Washington center, and the way in which it incorporates and coordinates multiple jurisdictions at various levels of government via an interoperable voice and data network and regional communications center, is precisely the type of project that many state and local governments are planning for, industry officials said.

Funding for such projects is available through a combination of federal grants and state and local government contributions for just such projects, said Mark Moon, corporate vice president for government and commercial markets division with Motorola Inc.

"The trend in funding is pushing toward regional or statewide types of systems, because that way you can really get the most bang for the buck, and you can drive interoperability and true collaboration," Moon said.

Being able to use emergency management systems for day-to-day police and fire department activities is key to securing that funding, said government and industry officials.

"The push now, much like a business push, is about getting the folks the tools to make them more efficient, more effective," Moon said. "It's about how we get mission-critical data at their fingertips, wherever they might be."

As standards are rolled out and policies set, those systems will evolve to include private sector entities such as hospitals, and critical infrastructure such as utility companies, as well as public sector first responders, industry officials said.

If an emergency happened, and responders closed on a fiery scene, they would need to know where to take the victims, said Brad Westpfahl, IBM Corp.'s director for government industry programs.

"If you've got a serious burn victim, then you want to go to a hospital with a burn unit," Westpfahl said.

But, he added, "you also want to go to one that hasn't been [adversely] affected by the emergency, or hasn't been overloaded."

Money trail

Spending on first-responder IT remains strong; it's the fourth largest segment of IT spending among state and local governments in 2006.

State and local spending on first-responder IT is expected to grow at an average annual rate of 7.2 percent, rising from $7.1 billion in 2006 to $9.4 billion 2010, according to market research firm Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn.

But concerns abound over the stability of that funding, industry officials said.

Rishi Sood, a Gartner research vice president, sees a split in the market. Over the next 18 months, grants from the Homeland Security Department will continue to fuel strong spending on first-responder IT, particularly for fusion centers, new communications infrastructures and computer-aided dispatch system upgrades, Sood said.

Fusion centers are centralized, collaborative efforts by government officials to collect, integrate and analyze anti-terrorism data and intelligence for homeland security purposes. These efforts often lead to coordinated work with local first responders.

But with greater spending comes greater visibility. And in a highly politicized environment, in which Congress and the president may not see eye to eye, greater oversight likely will follow, Sood said.

"From a federal perspective, DHS has a couple of years to receive above-average funding," he said. But that favored status could be revoked, he said.

Also, greater stringency in funding and program oversight would affect how grant money funnels down to state and local governments, he said.

If such a sea change occurs and prevails after the 2008 elections, state and local governments will have to re-prioritize spending, and likely will have to contribute more toward projects, Sood said.

Homeland security grants will level off, but not drop off altogether, said James Carafano, senior research fellow at Washington think tank the Heritage Foundation. In fact, he said, another major terrorist or emergency incident could spark even greater funding.

Creating the Washington command center would not have been financially feasible without $24 million of federal grant money and $82 million of Washington funds, said Washington CTO Peck. And getting the funding would have been impossible without demonstrating the center's dual capabilities: for both emergency and daily first-responder applications, she said.

"That's extraordinarily important," Peck said. "The UCC's first and usual responsibility is to make sure that every 911 call in DC is promptly answered."

Heavy lifting

Projects to strengthen first-responder capabilities in other major metropolitan areas, such as Houston, Los Angeles and New York, are under development by top integrators in the state and local market, including EDS Corp., IBM, Northrop Grumman Corp., Science Applications International Corp. and Unisys Corp.

Another company, Intergraph Corp. of Huntsville, Ala., furnishes key technologies for the market. Motorola straddles both markets, an integrator on some projects and a technology supplier on others.

Other companies seeking state and local first-responder work include General Dynamics Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp., Raytheon Co. and SRA International Inc., Gartner's Sood said.

For Washington's command center, Northrop Grumman delivered the system design, IBM furnished telecommunications, Motorola supplied the public safety dispatch, and SAIC tackled the logging and recording of voice communications.

Projects that integrators are developing today include:

» Unisys chasing records management system improvements in Los Angeles County and with the Houston Police Department, which will include automated field reporting, said Rob Sprecher, solutions director for Unisys North America Public Sector.

» Motorola is tracking a regional interoperable communications system in Riverside, Calif. The company built a statewide, integrated voice and data network used by state and local governments as well as the Defense Department in Alaska.

» Northrop Grumman is following a computer-aided dispatch system procurement for the California Highway Patrol, as well as a statewide computer-aided dispatch system for agencies in Maryland.

One eagerly awaited request for proposals will come from Washington for the estimated $50 million buildout of the Unified Communications Center's wireless communications network; a pilot project covered only the District of Columbia. The RFP for a regional broadband wireless network is expected in the first quarter of 2007.

Other similar projects are further along. Northrop Grumman in September won a contract worth $500 million to build a wireless broadband public safety network for New York. The system will enhance the city's voice network with high-speed data and video capabilities, two components that most similar system upgrades will call for, said Greg Poldy, director of public safety and transportation for Northrop Grumman's Information Technology Sector.

The company has pitched a similar system to five other major U.S. cities, although Poldy declined to name them.

"I do see a big push on the wireless side, enabling solutions," Poldy said. "And more municipal governments are looking at video surveillance solutions, and integrating those into their overall command and control systems."

Staff Writer Ethan Butterfield can be reached at ebutterfield@postnewsweektech.com.

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