Emergency alerts delivered intelligently

Region 13

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Emergency responders and public health officials in southwest Pennsylvania have dealt with their share of catastrophes and crises in recent years.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the region's first responders raced to a field in Somerset County, where United Airlines Flight 93, one of four airplanes hijacked by terrorists that day, crashed. A year later, emergency workers rescued nine coal miners trapped 240 feet below the surface in Quecreek Mine. And last fall, they dealt with one of the state's worst hepatitis A outbreaks, which originated in Beaver County and resulted in 15,000 inoculations.

Formed in 1998, the Pennsylvania Southwest Emergency Response Group — also known as Region 13 — is recognized as having one of the nation's best cross-jurisdictional emergency response arrangements. The region, with a population of 1.3 million, comprises 13 counties and the city of Pittsburgh.

Despite the maturity of the counties' mutual aid relationships, there are still challenges, said Robert Full, chief of emergency services for Allegheny County. He said first responders needed an interoperable communications tool that would reliably contact and better deploy them in emergencies, provide intelligence so they're more prepared when entering a situation and disseminate better information to the public or specific groups, such as school districts.

Full, who heads Region 13's Anti-Terrorism Task Force, said the group's technical committee evaluated several emergency management products and chose Pittsburgh-based Evoxis Inc.'s Prodigent for Emergency Management, which it successfully tested in mid-March.

Prodigent is an intelligent, multichannel, scalable notification system that immediately tracks down first responders in the event of an emergency and delivers real-time information, Evoxis officials said. The current model for sending emergency messages is a one-to-many format, in which a basic message is sent to everyone responding to an event, said Mohan Ramani, co-founder and chief executive officer of the 3-year-old company.

However, with Prodigent, users can tailor messages, which are constantly updated as an event progresses, for each emergency, whether it's a tornado, hazardous-material spill or bomb threat. Providing more relevant, updated information helps emergency workers understand a situation they're entering. The system also serves as an emergency management center that tracks such information as who is responding, their arrival time and where they're being deployed.

"If you have highly skilled people, the better information you can get to them, the better off they'll be," Ramani said.

Officials refer to the core technology as Silly Putty, meaning it is so flexible it can be molded to an organization's or area's particular needs. The software operates across a variety of platforms and integrates with any personnel system. Menu-driven, it can be hosted at Evoxis data centers, at centers run by managed service providers or configured for a client's site.

When an event occurs, the system, which can create a distribution list dynamically, automatically sends customized messages to first responders' listed communication devices. The system might first call a responder's home phone if that's normally where the individual is after work hours. If it gets an answering machine — the system can distinguish a human voice from voice mail — Prodigent might then contact the responder's wireless phone, pager or e-mail, depending on the person's contact profile. The system also can contact all the various messaging devices at the same time.

When a message is delivered, a responder calls a telephone number, authenticates his or her identity and listens to an interactive, customized message that can be up to two minutes long.

Full said the system can notify off-duty personnel and alert hospital personnel of arriving casualties requiring a certain type of treatment.

Emergency messages can say, for example, " 'If you're able to respond to this emergency, press 1, or if you can't respond, press 2,' " he said. " 'Now enter in military time how many minutes it will take you to arrive on a scene.' "

The software's price depends on customer requirements but generally ranges from $35,000 for a small solution hosted on-site at customer facilities to $700,000 for a large, multiyear solution hosted by Evoxis. The number of users is unlimited.

Region 13 is implementing the system in phases at an initial cost of $500,000 through a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant. Full said officials from other jurisdictions and the Homeland Security Department have inquired about the system but added that the county wouldn't have been able to buy it if it weren't for the approval of the three dozen county commissioners.

"The strength of the organization is the sum of its parts," he said.

Although she has not yet seen a demonstration of the product, Jocelyn Young, public-sector research director at the analyst firm Datamonitor, said such solutions are compelling when they are equally useful for daily operations in addition to during large-scale emergencies.

However, a challenge for Evoxis officials will be getting the message to fragmented state and local agencies that are struggling for funds for new technologies, she said.

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