For PAIRS, patience begets buy-in

Eric Conrad can sympathize with problems other people have in getting organizations to share data and build an integrated emergency response mechanism. He managed to develop the Pennsylvania Incident Response System (PAIRS), but it wasn't easy.

"How to get people out of their [departmental] silos and talking with each other was the biggest headache we had," he said. "Many states will find it's their biggest problem also, and it's certainly what [Homeland Security Director Tom] Ridge is finding now."

PAIRS evolved from a system built to tackle the spread of the West Nile virus in Pennsylvania. It now provides a secure, Web-based system for reporting and tracking potential terrorist attacks associated with anthrax exposure, smallpox, nuclear incidents, chemical attacks and contamination of water treatment systems.

The system also supports emergencies such as natural disasters and toxic spills.

A number of core agencies had to be included in the original plan, said Conrad, who is deputy secretary for field operations in Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection and the creator of PAIRS. Officials from the agencies realized that something had to be done about the West Nile virus, "but each of them saw that something differently," he said.

The officials decided on an overall plan that set expectations but implemented a process that let agencies go at their own pace.

The plan enabled real-time data sharing across local, county and state boundaries by setting initial data standards and definitions that were used to collect data and then map it in the PAIRS database. All data points were made GIS-ready at the front end to enable real-time mapping.

PAIRS employed ESRI's ArcPad and ArcIMS for the design and construction of the system, and ArcSDE to store the data location. From start to finish, the initial system was running in three months, Conrad said.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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