Internet service links emergency managers

Emergency managers this month will begin testing a federally funded initiative to improve the nation's ability to respond to attacks involving weapons of mass destruction by using a Web-based service to coordinate information sharing among federal, state and local agencies.

The project, called Consequence Management Interoperability Services (CMI-Services) is designed to provide a highly secure, free nationwide platform through which public safety agencies can exchange information and communicate with one another.

CMI-Services (www.cmi-services.org), which will undergo testing at specific sites this month, will give government officials access to expert references, counterterrorism best practices, weather data, training and planning tools, and mapping applications. The Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) Defense Systems Group of the Marine Corps Systems Command in Quantico, Va., is in charge of the project.

"The key is to have a relatively easy-to-use product that requires a minimal amount of training that allows people at all levels, jurisdictions and functional areas...to share information in a timely fashion," said Greg Shaw, a research scientist with George Washington University's Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management. Shaw participated in the development of CMI-Services while he was working at Veridian Corp.

The project began in March 2000 with $15 million in federal funding. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the initiative employed a "fast-track" plan to develop and deploy the service.

By giving emergency managers easy access to these resources, project officials hope to raise the level of preparedness among smaller communities that still rely on "grease pencils and laminated boards" by distributing free technology applications and tools, said Dick Munnikhuysen, program manager for CMI-Services.

Beta test sites include Chicago; Dallas; Johnstown, Pa.; Portsmouth, N.H.; and Seattle. The states of Illinois, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Texas also will participate. Testing will last through June, and if all goes well, the service will be expanded in July, he said.

Plugging In

To use the service, organizations — such as fire and police departments, state emergency offices and federal agencies — must designate one person from their group to work with CMI-Services.

That person, after being verified by CMI-Services, becomes the point person or administrator with overall responsibilities for installing and configuring the software and assigning roles and privileges to others including being able to create, edit and post data or simply view information.

Participants would then form a CMI-Services Operating Group (COG), consisting of a set of operators who can coordinate actions and exchange information, whether it's marking up a map, establishing roadblocks or sending instant messages. For example, within a county, a police department, fire department, hospital, emergency manager and emergency medical service squad could form one large consolidated COG.

To ensure that information always gets through, CMI-Services is developing an infrastructure of large networks of servers and T3, or DS3, lines to handle huge amounts of transactions, Munnikhuysen said. CMI-Services also will provide virtual private networking technology, so that users in different agencies can communicate securely and without interoperability problems.

The linchpin to the project, however, is the Internet.

"We went with the Internet because it's the lowest common denominator," Munnikhuysen said. Even if the user's Web connection is broken, he or she could continue to work, manipulate data and present questions, and when the connection is re-established, work would not be lost.

Judgment Calls

With the project software release this month, users can access a library of expert references and databases, a "one-stop shopping for information," Munnikhuysen said.

CMI-Services officials are not generating this information but simply setting up links to existing resources, he said. "We try hard not being the source of information. We try to connect that information," he said. "I make the analogy that we're like Amazon.com. We don't write any books, we don't stock books, but if you want a book, you get it through CMI-Services."

Assembling such a resource, though, is not as straightforward as it sounds. When the project team was initially developing the service, the group found itself having to make judgments about the quality of information that was available.

For example, there are numerous government and commercial databases on chemical information, he said. "But if you stack up all the various sources of information for one particular chemical agent or industrial compound and look at what the chemical databases say, they're different," he said. "The guy in the field, who does he believe?"

Officials from the Interagency Board for Equipment Standardization and Interoperability, a joint working group of the Defense and Justice departments that CMI-Services used as an advisory board, said they would come up with a "vetting process" and have experts review the information so they could present a set of accurate data.

Munnikhuysen said the service would add such databases as they become available, including a repository of counterterrorism best practices and lessons learned, currently being developed by the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism.

The CMI-Services group decided that the services would be free, essentially serving as a digital toolbox for those communities that are not technologically sophisticated. The group is providing software for geospatial digital mapping, hour-by-hour weather forecasts for every ZIP code in the country, planning templates and open-source intelligence reporting.

Other services will be added as the project proceeds. "The problem, I believe, is that the best technologies are still in the laboratory," said Chief Francis Moriarty of the Chicago Fire Department, who sits on the Executive Interoperability Council of CMI-Services.

He said he supports the efforts of Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) to spin off military applications relevant to communications in the public safety arena. He said he felt the Defense Department was "reluctant" to share technologies with state and local government because of national security concerns.

The question is, will people take advantage of it, Shaw said. It's important to use the system on a daily basis, because it's worthless if it's only used when "something terrible happens," he said.

Shaw added that it's crucial for states to buy into the system because many are involved with emergency management. If they are actively engaged in the system, municipalities will follow.

The services are designed to run on any version of Microsoft Corp. Windows 98 and beyond. Eventually, there will be versions for Apple Computer Inc. and Unix operating systems.

***

CMI-Services Toolbox

Consequence Management Interoperability Services offers three categories of information for emergency managers and first reponders:

Tactical information exchange — Situational awareness services, incident reporting information, secondary responder requirements and other services that enable an organization to share information about a specific incident with other organizations.

Expert reference — Convenient access to information repositories. These "library-like" services enable CMI-Services operators to find information that is stored in disparate government and nongovernment databases.

Tools — Services consist of a consequence management digital toolkit that will contain a set of tools that CMI-Services Operating Groups can use as best fits their particular organization. The objective is to include access to both government and commercial tools.

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