First responders seek common lingo

Emergency Interoperability Consortium

A national effort to ensure that first responders can exchange information among any systems is picking up steam as community officials renew their efforts to overcome traditional barriers to sharing information.

Interoperability is a hot topic in homeland security discussions, where it affects voice and data communications among first responders. Although many groups, including the criminal justice, transportation and medical communities, have solved some internal interoperability problems, often the transportation community's solutions are not interoperable with those of the medical community.

Recognizing the problem, officials in the Homeland Security Department's Disaster Management

e-Government Initiative Office are working with members of the Emergency Interoperability Consortium to develop an interoperability language known as Emergency Data Exchange Language (EDXL). The consortium is made up of federal, state and local agency officials and information technology industry leaders.

The members' goal is to have first responders use EDXL, an Extensible Markup Language standard. Systems that can handle XML will be able to handle the metadata specific to a first responder community, standards experts say. Most systems will be able to use EDXL as system development progresses.

Data interoperability is crucial for nationwide emergency response systems. DHS' National Incident Management System (NIMS), for example, is needed for information sharing, said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University.

The future effectiveness of NIMS depends on common federal, state and local policies and practices that must be in place by the end of 2007, Cilluffo said.

"The ability to communicate, the ability to make sure that the data is interoperable, will be absolutely crucial to these efforts," he said.

Experts at all levels of government have been talking about achieving interoperability, but true interoperability has been attained only in small, regional efforts. EDXL, standards experts say, should allow emergency response officials to share information more broadly.

Besides NIMS, other interoperability systems and initiatives, such as the National Capitol Region's Capital Wireless Integrated Network, could use EDXL to communicate with other systems.

But EDXL alone will not fully solve the interoperability problem, public safety experts say. Policy issues also must be considered, including providing systems to cash-strapped communities and identifying the type of information to be shared. Deciding who will have access to what information will be a continual matter of debate, said John Markey, director of the Office of Emergency Management Fire and Rescue Service Division in Frederick County, Md.

The EDXL standard itself is the next step in the evolution of the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), an open standard for exchanging hazard warnings and reports. That protocol has already been tested and certified as an international standard by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, a nonprofit, global consortium that is developing e-business standards.

CAP is in place and in use, and the XML schema will enhance its technical capability so that better policy decisions can be made, said public officials familiar with the protocol. With XML "headers" and "wrappers," emergency response data can be freely exchanged among systems and applications, said Jack Potter, director of emergency services at Winchester Medical Center in Virginia.

With EDXL, he said, "any given jurisdiction or agency picks the [application] that works best for them."

Creating a language

Emergency Data Exchange Language (EDXL) is intended to set a standard for national sharing of emergency response information. It will provide a single way to define the data that must be exchanged quickly and accurately among all communities involved before, during and after an incident.

The Emergency Interoperability Consortium, a group of public- and private-sector organizations working under the Homeland Security Department, is developing EDXL standards for several areas defined by the emergency response community. They include:

* Incident notification and situation reports.

* Status reporting.

* Resource requests and dispatches.

* Analytical data.

* Geospatial information.

* Identification and authentication.

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