Emergency groups clamor for directory

A coalition of national health, police and fire and other groups is trying to raise awareness and obtain federal funding for a real-time automatic messaging and information-sharing system that draws from a shared electronic directory of public and private emergency response agency contact information.

The geographic information system-enabled Emergency Provider Access Directory (EPAD), which has taken three years to develop, provides authorized users to share data across disparate systems and transmit emergency alerts and descriptions of specific incidents to registered individuals within a particular area or region.

Dr. Jack Potter, Valley Health System's emergency medical services director in Virginia, said a centralized electronic directory -- which would not cost agencies anything to use -- does not exist elsewhere and takes messaging systems to another level.

"It's the missing piece in many of the notification strategies," he said.

EPAD can be integrated into other commercially available or government-developed emergency management or incident command systems to share a greater breadth of data. Federal agencies can also use EPAD to notify a community and region instantly about any emergency. It can be used on a day-to-day basis, not just during major emergencies, advocates said. Alerts can also be sent to any device or system and users only need a desktop computer and browser to access EPAD.

The system employs the Common Alerting Protocol, an open standard for exchanging hazard warnings and reports, and the Emergency Data Exchange Language, which uses Extensible Markup Language data-sharing standards for emergency response. However, Potter said there are some security issues that need to be resolved and migrating from IP Version 4 to IP Version 6.

With the system, people within a community registered with EPAD receive key data about incidents they would only be interested in or need, he said. For example, a hospital may only want to know the projected number of casualties following a particular incident. Or if there is a toxic or gas leak, then emergency officials who originate the alert can attach information or link to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that explains how to treat affected individuals.

EPAD is part of a toolkit that developers are calling the National Emergency Alerting and Response Systems (NEARS), which includes an education and awareness campaign and assistance in developing policies and procedures. Proponents said the technology has been demonstrated several times and can be implemented but a majority of beneficiaries still don’t know about it.

"We're ready to go," Potter said, who is also vice chairman of Communications for Coordinated Assistance and Response to Emergencies (COMCARE), a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit alliance of emergency response organizations.

However, NEARS supporters are looking toward the federal government for money.

David Aylward, director of COMCARE said it will cost between $16 million to $17 million to roll this out over two years in a self-sustaining manner. He added that NEARS would also develop a non-profit group -- with representation from the federal, state and local emergency response and public health communities and industry -- to own, maintain, and update EPAD on a national basis.

Although EPAD was developed through a Justice Department grant and has been demonstrated to Homeland Security Department and other government officials, proponents said that no federal agency is stepping up to help take this nationwide.

Potter said the EPAD would also help state and local agencies establish and implement systems and practices needed to ensure seamless response to emergencies and incidents under the federal National Incident Management System. NIMS establishes baseline response capabilities governmentwide when a terrorist attack or natural disaster occurs. Failure to implement NIMS within three years could result in the withholding of federal grants.

COMCARE held a briefing and demonstration yesterday of EPAD on Capitol Hill.

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