Emergency alert system yields valuable lessons

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Oregon's Regional Alliances for Infrastructure and Network Security (RAINS) is an emergency alert system rather than a system for cybersecurity alerts, but its chairman, Charles Jennings, believes there are enough similarities that it offers some good lessons for those building a national cybersecurity alert system, particularly from the local perspective.

"The cyber world tends to be more heterogeneous than the emergency management world," Jennings said. "Nevertheless, the range of systems and requirements in both is equally broad. You need a level of alert that is just right for a particular situation."

RAINS has been operating since August 2003 to link 911 centers with public safety officials, schools, hospitals and others facilities in an automated alert notification system. It has already processed thousands of alerts.

One discovery early in the development process was that the idea of a single network that could provide alerts "is an ivory-tower fallacy," Jennings said.

Instead, the system had to be able to communicate common information while accommodating differences in the way participating agencies operate and communicate internally.

To do this, RAINS uses the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), which is an open, nonproprietary data interchange format that can be mapped into a wide range of information management and warning systems.

A base level of information relevant to all of the participants was determined so they could be linked within the RAINS system.

"The baselines are such things as electricity, communications, the IP [data network] layer, and then the applications and services that run on top of that," Jennings said. "The cyberwarning system also needs to understand that it should link back into these kinds of common systems."

Another lesson learned was that the whole development system leading to those systems is a lot less predictable than people first expect, Jennings said.

"You can't predict what it will be like. You need to do it and develop the system along the way," he said. "And for that you need an open-ended, highly flexible system."

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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