A fast track to information sharing
- By Dibya Sarkar
- Mar 24, 2002
Government officials are likely to give careful consideration to any technology that can help them respond to terrorist attacks. Like a high-priced home security service that homeowners hope they'll never see pay off, it's an investment the government is willing to make.
Such a comparison may be too limiting, though. Leaders from software companies and other organizations developing homeland security solutions say that such information systems could help law enforcement officials, firefighters and health care professionals respond to more common accidents and disasters, such as oil spills and disease outbreaks.
"You don't build a system to deal with terrorism. You build systems that handle public safety emergencies, and terrorism is just one of many," said Harlin McEwen, a retired Ithaca, N.Y., police chief and former deputy assistant director in the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division.
He said any system should be interoperable and the federal government should provide the coordination, necessary funding and leadership for national interoperability standards. "Public safety generally has been promoting this message for quite some time to have open systems," said McEwen, who has chaired the International Association of Chiefs of Police Communications and Technology Committee for the past 22 years.
"There are a lot of commonplace chemicals and biohazards, which can be involved in accidental or planned terrorist type incidents," said Krish Krishnan, chief executive officer of NetCompliance Inc., which last December introduced its First Responder Communications Systems (FRCS). The Web-based management package links first responders and other officials at the state and local levels during an emergency.
NetCompliance is one of several organizations that realized even before Sept. 11 that providing public safety officials with as much information as possible at a disaster scene could help save lives. This cottage industry includes other commercial software vendors such as Siebel Systems Inc., as well as communications specialists and universities.
The private sector has heeded the administration's call for new technologies. Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, a trade group representing more than 500 IT vendors, said companies and other groups have flooded the federal government with solutions.
Generally, those companies have not developed a new technology, but have simply adapted an existing technology to meet the government's needs. Several public-sector organizations also have gotten into the act.
Many applications focus on information sharing, because vendors recognize that although government agencies don't lack information, they don't always have access to that information when they need it.
Siebel's CRM technology was designed to help organizations manage online interactions and ensure that they proceed smoothly to a satisfactory conclusion. A key part of this strategy is developing self-service applications, which enable people to find information or conduct other transactions without speaking with someone directly.
Siebel's technology includes tools for personalizing the presentation of information to meet a user's interests, synchronizing data for mobile users who work remotely and automating workflow to manage the delivery of information or transactions.
The company is applying CRM concepts and tools to homeland security. The platform can be integrated into existing legacy systems to link federal agencies such as the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, along with state and local governments, airlines, hospitals and private companies, Bishop said.
Transforming Siebel's flagship product into a homeland security solution was a "natural derivation" of the software, he said, adding that the law enforcement and intelligence communities provided input during development.
Just as commercial companies use the software to manage information about their customers or business partners, law enforcement agencies can use it to manage investigations. The software could handle the exchange of information between state and local officials, the delivery of Web-based training and communications with field agents or hospitals, company officials said.
In a demonstration, company officials touted how a federal agent could have used the Siebel technology to track terrorist Mohamed Atta's actions and whereabouts, as well as those of the other Sept. 11 terrorists.
Using information that was publicly available about Atta, executives showed that the software linked to agencies such as INS, the Treasury Department, the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration and others could create a central repository of information about Atta, such as recording his entry into this country, tracking his finances, and sending and receiving information from field agents about his activities.
However, Siebel officials acknowledged that the software doesn't take the place of good investigations and that agencies must change their policies, procedures and practices so they can exchange information.
"We believe as a company and [as] citizens, the change will happen," Bishop said.
State and local governments can also use the scalable system for criminal investigations, such as tracking down the perpetrators of the recent anthrax scare, he said. The system provides agents with the tools to
create cases, alert other officials about the nature of the problem, provide protocols for responding to bioterrorism, contact agents in the field, and monitor local and national stockpiles of relevant drugs.
In a more traditional role, Siebel's technology might be used to handle huge volumes of citizen inquiries, making it easier to provide automatic replies or deliver personalized responses online.
NetCompliance's FRCS is designed to provide police, fire and emergency medical personnel on the scene or back at the station with detailed information that can help them respond to an emergency. The system supports voice and video communications.
Like Siebel, NetCompliance did not build its solution from scratch. Instead, the company based FRCS on its eComply technology, which was designed to help corporations make sure they adhere to relevant government regulations. With eComply, companies can manage the collection, storage and distribution of regulatory information and training materials via the Internet or their own intranet.
For example, if a truck carrying hazardous materials crashed, a fire company chief could securely log on to the Web-based system and immediately see an incident profile, including the number of injuries and how the evacuation plan is progressing. A 911 computer-aided dispatch center and a telematics unit in the truck could automatically feed vital information
to the FRCS system as emergency squads respond, said Jay Briggs, NetCompliance's business development manager. Further information would be entered manually at the scene.
If the firefighters at the accident site knew what kind of chemical has been released, they could look up information about how the spilled or released material might react with chemicals stored in nearby buildings.
They can also search the chemical library to check characteristics of the spilled hazardous material, access reference materials from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and download information on how to treat victims.
Briggs said deploying such a system would require setting up a task force in a community or region and resolving interagency issues, policies and protocols.
The company has signed an agreement with ComCARE Alliance a national coalition of more than 70 emergency medical organizations, health officials, public safety and law enforcement groups, wireless and automobile companies, and consumer organizations to develop a Web-based, publicly available Emergency Provider Access Directory, which Briggs said is like "a yellow pages of emergency providers."
Krishnan called it an "intelligent directory" that can provide the appropriate contact information based on the situation. He said first responders need simple, concise information as fast as possible during the first hour of responding to an emergency.
The company is also working with several municipalities and OSHA to test and deploy the system.
A team at the University of Pittsburgh has developed a similar system, called the Interactive, Intelligent, Spatial Information System, which was recently tested in several mock disasters (see "For the public good," Page S10).
A free nationwide messaging system, available since early 2000, provides subscribers with alerts and warnings on emergencies and other problems that might affect them, such as severe weather; electrical, gas or water outages; and other information from federal, state and local governments. Subscribers can receive the information on their computer, wireless phone, digital pager or fax machine.
Since its launch, the Emergency E-mail Network Inc. has signed up "hundreds of thousands" of users, and the patent-pending system has sent out an estimated 40 million to 50 million messages in the past year, according to chief executive officer J. William Tamargo.
The network was created in 1999, after Hurricane Floyd forced the evacuation of more than 1 million people in Florida, Tamargo said. At the time, experts decided that a messaging system could have provided more comprehensive information around-the-clock than TV and radio updates did.
In emergencies, Tamargo said government officials could immediately send a message to the public or employees using the company's secure messaging infrastructure.
Corporations use the fee-based service, he said, to alert employees or clients. Fees are based on the size of the constituent database and frequency of usage. Government clients can send alerts to citizens in a particular ZIP code or county. For example, a mayor could log on securely through any browser, compose a message and have it sent to a particular segment of the population,
In December, when a court order shut down the Interior Department's Web site and
e-mail system, the company donated its messaging services to the U.S. Geological Survey so its workers could receive e-mail messages about earthquake notifications.
Similarly, New York City, where communications were partially crippled by the terrorist attack, could have used the messaging network as a backup, Tamargo said. On Sept. 11, the network sent out an e-mail alert that the FAA had grounded all flights, beating CNN to the punch.
The National Governors Association features the network on its Web site in the homeland security section. "There's no other venue that offers the speed of delivery, short of television and radio," he said. "But the network provides more robust content. You can't even get that on televison."
About 250 to 300 public-sector organizations including emergency management, police, fire departments, Red Cross chapters and one civil defense organization have signed up to use the system as a way to disseminate information.
W. David Stephenson, a freelance Internet strategist based in Medfield, Mass., said some government officials may not adapt well to using commercial technology for homeland security. It's often not enough to "repurpose" technology agencies must also change how they work to really take advantage of it, he said.
For example, he criticized the FBI's Web site tip page (https://www.ifccfbi.gov/complaint/terrorist.asp), where people can submit leads about terrorism or other criminal activities. The FBI could have made the process interactive so that submitted information could be immediately triaged.
Tips that qualified for the highest alert status "would immediately go to the action level," he said. It's a small example, but it shows how "the thinking is way behind the technology."
When technology and processes are in sync, government agencies could see some fringe benefits. For example, rapid deployment of applications based on Extensible Markup Language would not only improve information sharing among agencies, but also spur more use of XML in
But technology can only do so much, private- and public-sector officials point out. Governments must examine their business processes, policies and protocols and determine how and what kind of information can be shared, how communities respond to emergencies and other critical information, and the training they provide.
"The technology, in my judgment, is the easy part," said Louise Comfort, an expert in emergency management. "It's way ahead of the organizational analysis and building of collaborative relationships to make this work."