Crisis Management Center gives safety a new look

When natural disasters this year paralyze movement by air, ground or water, it will be the new technology-focused Crisis Management Center (CMC) at the Transportation Department that responds first.

The center, at DOT headquarters in Washington, D.C., was established last month as a central command post to coordinate emergency responses among the Coast Guard, Federal Aviation Administration and the department's eight other organizations.

Centralized crisis management is nothing new at DOT, but the center replaces an old concept - a conference table and 13 phone lines - with a high-technology approach to gathering and sharing information.

The center features a network of desktop computers equipped with disaster-specific applications, mapping and other standard software, Internet access and large projection screens.

"We are looking at a new way of doing disaster management," said Barbara Barajas, manager of crisis management programs at DOT's Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA).

CMC, managed by RSPA's Office of Emergency Transportation (OET), gets involved in any crisis that has an impact on different modes of transportation - for example, rising waters that strand or endanger travelers on waterways and highways, or earthquakes that disrupt transportation across the board.

During any such crisis, OET will be the secretary of Transportation's primary source of information on emergency response activity.

During the first 24 hours, the center staff pulls together a series of reports detailing the impact of the disaster and the initial response, and formulating potential courses of action. The report will be updated as long as an emergency persists.

DOT created the new center as part of a larger effort to make response coordination more manageable. In addition to new technology, DOT has inaugurated a Crisis Management Augmentation Cadre program, in which each DOT administration trains individuals to work in the center during emergencies.

However, just as important, DOT recognized that CMC staff members needed better tools to manage the flow of data. The center features 17 Intel Corp. Pentium-based desktop computers running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT and an application suite for gathering and analyzing data as well as Netscape Communications Corp.'s Internet browsers.

In addition to office automation applications, the workstations include basic mapping software from Delorme Mapping Co., Freeport, Maine, and more advanced geographic information system software from MapInfo. CMC staff members can use the Delorme package for the first look at an area, before developing more sophisticated maps with MapInfo software, Barajas said.

Each workstation also is equipped with InfoBook, from EIS International, and EM 2000, from Specialized Disaster Systems. InfoBook is a point-and-click program that acts much like a sophisticated "To Do" list, and CMC is using it as a reference manual for cadre members. It includes important phone numbers at DOT regional offices, local authorities and other key contacts.

It also provides easy access to the government's standard operating procedures for emergency response.

EM 2000 is a disaster-specific software package for recording information as it comes in by phone call or fax from regional offices. Eventually, DOT hopes to provide those offices with their own copy of the software so they can put the data in the correct format and transmit it directly to CMC, Barajas said.

"We have definitely come out of the automation dark ages," said Bob Rementer, manager of information resources at RSPA.

Over the past several years, OET has been introducing technology into crisis management. However, its base infrastructure involved nothing more than telephones. Computers, wherever they could be found, had to be brought in on the fly.

The infrastructure now includes a 67-inch projection screen, visible throughout the center, where users can display information from their own screen to share with programs such as a GIS application. The center also has TV monitors tuned into the Cable News Network, the Weather Channel or other sources.

The new infrastructure also provides access to a number of other resources, particularly on the Internet. CMC has created about 30 bookmarks for getting information related to water levels, seismic and volcanic activity, and other potentially important indicators.


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