IT, culture challenge homeland community

In dealing with homeland security — with a community that ranges from the president's Cabinet to the first firefighter at the scene of a disaster — ensuring that the myriad systems involved can communicate with one another is a monumental challenge.

Information technology is helping to bridge some of the gaps, but interoperability and cultural issues remain, according to a panel of experts speaking May 21 at an urban intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance conference sponsored by Defense Week in Washington, D.C.

"There are a bewildering array of legacy system out there, and they're not going away," said Matt Walton III, vice chairman and founder of E Team Inc., whose collaborative incident management software was used in this month's TopOff 2 exercise, which simulated terrorist attacks on Seattle and Chicago.

A related obstacle is how the various government agencies can take advantage of emerging tools so that anyone with the proper security clearance can access the information they need when they need it, Walton said, adding that this represents both a challenge and a great opportunity for industry.

Mark Zimmerman, program manager for the Disaster Management E-Gov Initiative in the Homeland Security Department (DHS), said the horizontal fusion challenge is ensuring that County A can talk to County B, even if they're using different systems. But there's also the vertical integration of the federal, state and local participants.

The initiative, which includes the DisasterHelp.gov portal for emergency preparedness and response information, is being designed to connect more than 4 million members of the first responder community — firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians — pulling together systems, simplifying services and eliminating duplication.

"There will be no exclusions," Zimmerman said. "The responder is our customer."

The panelists agreed that cultural and information-sharing issues also remain challenges.

"The basic community is IT-averse," Zimmerman said, referring to small-town law enforcement forces and other local first responders. He added that his program is focused on the "have nots" and lauded the work of the Emergency Management Extensible Markup Language Consortium, which is working to create standards to help first responders and others communicate and exchange information during emergencies.

The consortium of private- and public-sector organizations, university groups and nonprofit agencies expects to submit the first specification to the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards by year's end, said Walton, who leads the executive committee. XML eases the exchange of information by tagging data so disparate applications and systems can recognize it.

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