For the public good

Commercial firms are not the only software developers providing solutions for homeland security.

Louise Comfort, a public policy professor at the University of Pittsburgh, successfully tested a Web-based system for emergency managers in western Pennsylvania several months ago.

Called the Interactive, Intelligent, Spatial Information System, or IISIS (pronounced EYE-sis), the system provides real-time, interactive communication among the members of a response team.

With the assistance of several graduate students, Comfort began work on the system in the mid-1990s. She conducted dozens of interviews with emergency managers worldwide and found that the managers needed a distributed system that provides information in real time.

IISIS tries to meet that need by tracking multiple incidents occurring simultaneously, providing details on the status of the incidents and listing responders in each area.

IISIS includes a dynamic geographic information system module that displays a basic profile of the region and detailed travel information so emergency managers can plan evacuation routes. IISIS also includes an intelligent reasoning module that can identify the probability of a threat based on partial information.

In early December, officials from Pittsburgh, the university, two nearby municipalities, Allegheny County and the American Red Cross used IISIS in a mock demonstration of several disasters, such as fires, electrical outages, gas main trips and hazardous material spills. Comfort said discussions are under way for a possible demonstration of the product in the Philadelphia region.

She said it could have been useful to firefighters responding to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, providing them with critical information about the structure of the building, jet fuel and temperature at which steel loses its integrity. In practice, agencies would probably use IISIS mostly for training, because scenarios encourage people to think about risk assessment for all hazards, Comfort said.

"If you're trained well, it would reduce the amount of time they would have to use it in response," she said. "The technology itself becomes a vehicle for developing the capacity for coordination in these communities."

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