Rural region models safety system

Virginia Department of Transportation

An initiative begun as a way to improve highway safety in Virginia's northern Shenandoah Valley could become a model for interoperable communications for first responders in other rural regions.

The Virginia Department of Transportation, several private-sector health and nonprofit groups and a number of jurisdictions in the valley are developing an integrated, Web-based communications platform for first responders.

Led by the Northern Shenandoah Valley (NSV) Steering Committee, the initiative began three years ago as an effort to improve highway safety and the response to crashes and hazardous material spills along the state's Interstate 81 corridor.

But after Sept. 11, 2001, there was a "pretty significant sea change" in the project's scope, said Jack Potter, chairman of the NSV committee and medical director of emergency services at Winchester Medical Center in Winchester, Va. "And so they became issues that are much broader for homeland security, but from our position these remain emergency incidents."

The steering committee began refining the Integrated Intelligent Transportation System — Public Safety System during the past year and has identified several central but generic features needed for any emergency response, he said. "If we dreamed up the right basic network and the right strategy, we should be able to handle any of a number of different kinds of incidents," he said.

Such generic features, he said, include:

* A central directory of resources and contact information for the region, which encompasses a couple of hundred miles and several million people.

* Intelligent message switching that immediately disseminates critical information to key parties through any desktop or mobile device.

* An emergency Web site, which features a scalable geographic information system map that provides a "battlefield look" at an area.

"We refer to that affectionately as our plumbing," Potter said. "Now once you have that in place, we're now adding the applications that provide the water — the actual applications that will move and handle the information so the end user can do his job better."

That's where several technology companies come into play, he said. With guidance from the ComCARE Alliance, a nonprofit group that promotes integrated emergency systems, the initiative selected Optimus Corp., which will deploy its Michaels Fire and EMS command and control system. The system provides firefighters, paramedics other first responders and officials with a geospatial overview of the region's resources, said Eric Adolphe, chief executive officer of the the Silver Spring, Md.-based company.

The system can display an area's closest assets and provide critical information such as what to do or what to wear during a hazardous chemical spill, he said. It automatically collects and aggregates data for future analysis, can act as a disease surveillance system, and even provides specific information about certain patients whom paramedics frequently treat. A handheld, Web-based mobile version can be installed in ambulances to perform data collection and display, he added.

Such systems will reduce errors and help deliver data and information more quickly. Adolphe said deployment is scheduled near the end of the year, and training on the product is "as intuitive as an ATM" — meaning it takes hours, not days or weeks, to learn.

Potter said the Optimus system and other technologies would provide first responders with more information than what they would receive in verbal reports from dispatchers. In rural areas, such information is vital because distances to facilities are much greater.

Currently, the initiative has produced a prototype Web site linking 11 hospitals throughout the region with information on local providers. It conducted a bioterrorism drill in March and plans to hold another larger one, possibly later this summer as new technologies and vendors are selected.

By developing an open-standards, open-architecture, scalable system with affordable technologies and Internet connectivity, Potter said the committee hopes to put together a model that other rural regions can emulate. Funding, he said, is coming from several state and federal resources.

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