Software boosts first responders

State and local governments are improving their ability to respond to terrorist threats by installing new software programs.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, federal, state and local governments realized that many of their emergency response systems were outdated and poorly organized.

The Homeland Security Department has designated money for improving national emergency preparedness. Likewise, many local governments are trying to rapidly improve communication among emergency responders and provide a coordinated response in the event of another attack.

"Interoperability is like a Holy Grail," said Costis Toregas, president of Public Technology Inc., a nonprofit technology research and development organization for local governments. "Everybody has been saying for a while, 'Oh, systems should be talking to one another.' But we've just recently gotten the technology that allows us to do this. The dam has been breached and I think the trend of integrating systems with software will move across the country."

Frederick County, Md., is one jurisdiction taking advantage of new technology. County officials teamed with Blue292 Inc., a provider of crisis information management software, in June. They aim to create a system that coordinates the county's emergency response plans and enables emergency and law enforcement officials to quickly manage incidents.

"Like many jurisdictions, we didn't have a truly automated system before," said Jack Markey, director of emergency services in Frederick County. "Before, we might not have needed one, but since [Sept. 11], things that weren't viewed as front-row problems in terms of emergency response are now getting pushed up."

Blue292's Blue EM Web-based software unifies networks and servers into a virtual emergency operations center to help personnel plan for incidents and track and manage responses. The software comes with planning tools, templates and support for geographic information systems and communications tools for automatic incident notifications.

With Blue EM, Frederick County officials can devise plans for every type of emergency, from tornadoes to terrorist attacks. When an incident occurs, officials can activate the appropriate plan, and all the necessary people are automatically notified.

"If a tornado hits in the middle of the night, this computer system can notify a sleeping fire chief on his mobile phone automatically," said Kevin Coyne, executive vice president of Blue292. "Disasters happen 24/7/365, so we need to always be ready."

East Baton Rouge Parish, La., also is upgrading its emergency response system. Parish officials began using Thinkstream Inc.'s Web-based software in September 2002 to coordinate their criminal justice system. The Thinkstream software connects databases at more than 45 area criminal justice agencies, so officers can get background information from national, state and local databases in seconds.

Leaders continue to develop the system's capabilities. In the next two to three months, parish officials plan to connect more agencies to their systems, so all personnel in the area can be contacted immediately in an emergency through wireless phones, pagers and the Internet.

"One of the big problems on [Sept. 11] was that New York [officials] had to notify CNN and NBC and everyone else to let people know about the attacks," said Tracey Robinson, project manager for East Baton Rouge Parish. "We want to have technology that will get out information immediately to any law enforcement officials."

Thinkstream officials expect East Baton Rouge Parish leaders to expand connections to the National Guard and seaports in the state.

Like many local governments, the Louisiana parish is relying more on new software providers to move it toward this interconnectivity.

"The bottom line is that the technologists all know that this is eventually going to be a distributed, interconnected world," said Michael Malone, vice president of research and development for Thinkstream. "The older generations of technology just aren't going to work anymore, and we need to recognize that all over the country."

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