Reach out and communicate
- By Dibya Sarkar
- Jul 05, 2004
With the aim of improving communications among government and private-sector officials in the event of a calamity, Homeland Security Department officials have launched a pilot test of a counterterrorism communications network.
The Homeland Security Information Network-Critical Infrastructure (HSIN-CI) program, in partnership with the FBI, is expanding a counterterrorism communications network that would immediately transmit warnings and alerts to police, fire, ambulance and emergency management officials in local communities, as well as critical infrastructure owners and operators.
About 85 percent of the nation's critical infrastructure is owned by the private sector.
The network, which disseminates unclassified information, will be tested in Dallas, Seattle, Atlanta and statewide in Indiana through the end of the year. It will ultimately host more than 25,000 members on the network. Eventually, it will be launched nationwide.
The secure network can rapidly communicate messages to specific industry sectors, such as nuclear plants or electric companies, at a rate of 10,000 outbound voice calls per minute, 5,000 simultaneous e-mail messages and 3,000 simultaneous faxes. It can also receive 30,000 simultaneous inbound calls via a hot line.
Art Fierro, a special agent with the FBI's Dallas office who is detailed to DHS to oversee national implementation of the program, said HSIN-CI is not a technology, but more of a program to involve all community stakeholders in homeland security.
Soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he said officials in his office realized
they needed a point of contact to reach the public and private sectors within the Dallas region. To do that, they harnessed databases to collect contact information and used Web technology to serve as a conduit to reach the right people. Within two months, the Dallas Emergency
Response Network was created, and that served as the model for the HSIN-CI
"But more importantly, we formed what was referred to as a local governance" board, Fierro said. "And local governance is reflective of the key contacts or the different critical infrastructures in the community."
Representatives from critical infrastructure groups — such as water, telecommunications, power, transportation — and Fortune 500 companies were included in an Infrastructure Advisory Panel. Those representatives recruited their colleagues from other industries to help the panel grow.
"I really see that people are willing to work together, especially when it's their program," Fierro said. "You can't just have cops sitting around the table. You've got to have somebody from your private sector engaged. And they know each other. They just have never come together as a group to operate together."
Officials from Seattle and Indiana officially launched their systems July 1. Atlanta officials are still developing their program.
Earl Morgan, state director of the Indiana Counter-Terrorism and Security Council, said officials realized that time is crucial in responding to disasters or threats, and launched the Indiana Alert Network.
That system gives "us a unique opportunity where we can reach out and touch those folks who need to know and need to react and not waste hours of critical and valuable time by trying to go through phonebooks and other means by which to contact people," he said.
Morgan said DHS provided the servers, software and high-speed connectivity. The Web sites serve as repositories of contact information — including telephone, wireless phone, pager and fax numbers, e-mail addresses, and other communication modes. Robust search capabilities enable DHS or FBI officials to target and send information to specific sectors.
The Indiana security council was formed in October 2001, only one month after the terrorist attacks. It includes federal, state and local government officials from the judicial and legislative branches, environmental management, agriculture, police, fire, National Guard, transportation, utilities and various private-sector organizations.
"Seeing this opportunity pop up on the horizon, it became a no-brainer to make sure we get our act together to become part of this," Morgan said.
The local systems will also allow
the public to submit information through the FBI Terrorist Information and Prevention System, which would then be shared with DHS' Homeland Security Operations Center. The program also allows groups to list assets, such as equipment or
skills, which could be available during an emergency.
For example, if Fierro needs bulldozers, he can quickly index the names of everyone who could provide them after an incident.
Matt Morrison, executive director of the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region — a statutory body created by five states and three Canadian provinces to focus on economic trade and best practices — said first responders, government officials and
private-sector representatives recognized they needed a vehicle to better communicate with one another.
"When the threat levels went to [code] orange, it was still the FBI phoning key people out of the Rolodexes," or else officials would discover the information on CNN, said Morrison, who sits on Seattle's HSIN-CI local governance board for the NorthWest Warning, Alert & Response Network. "We were anxious to get a system that would communicate the right information to the right people," he added.
Morrison said the system is a network of networks. The energy sector in Seattle created a network to alert people about power outages, he said, but the water sector had many employees in the field who weren't able to communicate with one another and now they can. That can help other industries better prepare for emergencies or threats.
He said he'd also like to see the program expanded to neighboring Canadian communities.
But Morrison said the technology is
really the easier aspect of the system to implement. "The part that often doesn't get done is the institution building, the human interface," he said. "You can't bypass it. You can't come in with the technology and say, 'OK, here's this whiz-bang system.' People have to be engaged and communicate with each other to make sure the technology will do what the stakeholders want it to do."