Angels over Los Angeles

Web-based tool will aid emergency and public safety efforts

This summer, the City of Angels will have an archangel watching over it. Los Angeles officials plan to implement a Web-based information collection and analysis system that will provide emergency officials and field commanders with details about facilities' vulnerabilities and protection plans.

The information collected by the system, known as Operation Archangel, could include everything from contact information to building plans to maps showing a facility's relationship with other critical assets, officials said.

Operation Archangel won Federal Computer Week's 2005 Monticello award.

A $3 million Justice Department grant initially funded the intergovernmental system. From the program's beginning, the city and county of Los Angeles, the California Office of Homeland Security, and the federal Homeland Security Department have partnered to support it.

Archangel promises to be a national model for sharing information among agencies so they can coordinate efforts to prevent, prepare for, respond to and mitigate critical incidents, said Karen Evans, administrator of e-government and information technology at the Office of Management and Budget.

Archangel allows federal, state and local authorities to obtain the best possible information about different sites and align resources in a more effective way, Evans said. Moreover, because it is based on Web technology and open standards, it can be established and adapted to local needs quickly, she said.

Losing sleep

Lt. Tom McDonald, an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), did not know he would initiate the development of such a sharable system when he took on the job of assessing high-risk assets compiled by city officials in the months following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"I just wanted to find a better way to assess potential targets, not develop a database," McDonald said. "But that's what ended up happening."

At first, city officials had compiled a list of critical assets that contained more than 500 locations — double and sometimes triple the number other cities chose. Officials did not appear to use any criteria to define critical assets. They had even included sites that were based on law enforcement issues that were more than a decade old, he said.

"I was losing sleep over it, but it wasn't the sites that were on the list — and shouldn't be — that were keeping me awake at night," McDonald said. "It was the ones that should be on the list and maybe weren't there because we didn't have a good system in place for identifying and prioritizing those critical assets."

He decided to find a more formal method to determine which sites were at risk and what information about those locations would be most useful to emergency responders.

In the past, officials at individual government agencies and private-sector entities collect information about high-risk buildings and locations. But the details were often inconsistent or irrelevant to emergency responders, and response plans were typically paper-based or stored in disparate databases, McDonald said. Incident commanders didn't have immediate access to critical information such as entry and exit points, air-flow system locations, the presence of hazardous materials and physical security systems.

Moreover, asset assessments and emergency response plans were written in a vacuum, which is especially problematic since the 2001 terrorist attacks, said Angelo Bellomo, director of environmental health and safety for the Los Angeles Unified School District. District officials, who oversee 900 schools, are enthusiastic participants in the Archangel project.

Schools have always had emergency plans, Bellomo said, but they all involved on-campus scenarios. They did not take into account external vulnerabilities that might affect, for example, the selection of safe zones or off-site evacuations.

"The thing is, if there is a major incident, there's going to be a multiagency response," Bellomo said. "And for that to be truly effective, there has to be multiagency planning. What Archangel really does is fill that leadership void."

Because the theory that input equals output is especially true in emergency response, Archangel's primary focus is obtaining the best possible information for responders, McDonald said. By talking to officials from different agencies and cities and holding focus groups, Archangel team members developed a solid definition of a critical asset. They also created a standard but dynamic business plan that enabled them to quickly assess infrastructure vulnerabilities and develop protective measures and response protocols.

They then searched for the best technology to support collecting, disseminating and continually updating the information. The nature of the work required that a system be robust, intuitive, sophisticated and secure.

However, because McDonald and his state and federal homeland security partners wanted to eventually share the system with other cities and counties, it also had to be based on open standards and be cost-effective.

"We wanted to make sure that what we developed and could afford in Los Angeles would also be affordable in Des Moines, [Iowa,] or Albuquerque," N.M., McDonald said.

Field tests

The Archangel team tested technologies in the field, and officials used parts of the eventual solution during the California wildfires in late 2003. Fire officials often rely on helicopter pilots to help determine the direction of a fire and the best way to combat it. A pilot flies over the fire, flies back, plots the information on a map and then sends it to the incident commander. The task takes at least three hours, during which the fire could move as much as 15 miles. Using the Archangel concept of Web-based software, encryption, mapping, situational awareness capabilities and an easy-to-use display panel, the pilot mapped the information and transmitted it immediately, reducing the time needed to 11 minutes.

Now that they knew what they needed, McDonald and his team turned to Orion Scientific to help build a permanent, scalable, secure system that was easily accessible to anyone with proper clearance.

"We want to provide the right information to strategic planners and tactical responders on both sides of the problem as they need to know," McDonald said. "There's no reason at all why the situation room within the White House couldn't access this system and look at the information."

At present, Archangel is still being tested on different platforms and in different situations, but it has already proven enormously helpful for LAPD officials, who recently used it to help secure this year's Academy Awards presentation and for emergency response to several incidents.

"It's of tremendous benefit to our efforts because we know what to protect, we can protect it more effectively and efficiently, and should something occur, we're able to put ourselves in a better position to respond effectively and efficiently," McDonald said.

Officials expect the system to be fully operational this summer, when it will be deployed at public safety agencies in the 16 cities contiguous to Los Angeles. Next, it will be deployed in cities throughout California and then nationwide, said Erroll Southers, deputy director for critical infrastructure protection at California's DHS.

"Archangel is a very, very dynamic tool," he said. "It provides a standardized process through training, assessment, data collection, data storage and revision. As a result, everybody's going to be on the same page."

Still, the work is far from finished.

"We can't do as we've done in this country for many, many years, which is to assess an asset, harden it, leave it alone and walk away to deal with something else," Southers said.

"All this has really done so far is raised more questions, and that's because emergency preparedness is going to be a process of continual improvement," he said. "We'll never reach the end, and that's the point of having a system like Archangel. We'll be able to constantly add to, revise and improve our information."

Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reached at [email protected].

The heart of an angel

Operation Archangel, a Web-based system developed by the city and county of Los Angeles to aid emergency workers, is set to be deployed this summer. The system identifies sites that are vulnerable to terrorist attacks and coordinates information about them.

The heart of the Archangel system is a secure online database called the Automated Critical Asset Management System. It stores site assessment data and gathers information from external databases. It works with mapping systems and aggregates relevant information.

Incident commanders, first responders and other authorized employees can access the system to view lists of critical assets and plans for enhancing security, protecting buffer zones and responding to emergencies.

Officials use the system with the Constellation Web portal developed by Orion Scientific Systems, which is now owned by SRA International. Constellation is an open-source data-mining and intelligence- gathering tool that analyzes stored information and looks for patterns. That capability enables local officials to track trends and, more importantly, to act on the information.

“If an intelligence analyst tells us that al Qaeda is focused on red buildings, the system can then go through all of the information and come back and say: ‘You have six red buildings. Here’s their level of criticality and vulnerability, here’s their current status, and this is what can be done to increase protection,’” said Lt. Tom McDonald, an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department and a member of the Archangel development team.

— Heather B. Hayes


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