Focus turns to disaster response

After Katrina, integrated networks and GIS are crucial

The slow, disorganized response by federal, state and local emergency responders to Hurricane Katrina has prompted state and county information technology officials to think more creatively about how to deploy technology when evacuating populous areas before and after major disasters.

Integrated, regional communications networks with built-in redundancies and wireless networks would help emergency responders communicate more effectively during disasters, state and county officials said. Additionally, integrated networks of geographical information systems would give government officials and residents a clearer picture of the best evacuation routes.

"How can you evacuate 80,000 to 100,000 people without automation? I don't see it," said Jerry McRay, chief technology officer at Alabama's Emergency Management Agency. All state and county emergency management agencies must be able to share data about the locations of people and resources, he said.

Alisoun Moore, chief information officer for Montgomery County, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C., said that in addition to having data communications, responders must be able to communicate effectively. "To do a mass evacuation like what you saw in New Orleans, there has to be greater interoperable communications," she said. "Communications are critical to evacuation, response and coordination — basic command-and-control functions."

As a result of Katrina's effects on disaster preparedness and response, more jurisdictions will rely on regionally connected data and communications networks, Moore said. Those networks will run on privately owned infrastructures with multiple redundancies.

The National Capital Region (NCR), made up of Montgomery County and 18 other jurisdictions in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, is testing a program to improve interoperable communications for emergency response that would serve as a model for other large population hubs nationwide, said Suzanne Peck, CTO for Washington, D.C.

"Katrina has confirmed what we already understand in D.C. as a high threat-potential environment," Peck said.

The program's goal is to learn best practices for using existing physical infrastructure and data and, more importantly, setting up cooperative governance structures and effective response operations, she said. "Technology supports that but isn't worth [anything] without it," she said.

The program has four projects. The first is connecting the jurisdictional networks with a 2.4 GHz fiber-optic network, Peck said. The I-Net project is due to start within the next year, Moore said.

Second, Washington, D.C., is deploying the Wireless Accelerated Responder Network, a broadband data network, beyond I-495, known as the Beltway, which surrounds and passes through NCR jurisdictions, Peck said.

Third, NCR partners are also integrating their emergency operations centers with redundant physical and wireless communications networks, Moore said. All centers are moving to WebEOC, a common regional incident management software, Peck said.

Finally, NCR is developing a common data-exchange hub that uses enterprise application interface software that allows users to access data regardless of its original format.

Urban Area Security Initiative grants from the Homeland Security Department are funding the programs, Moore said. The Washington, D.C., region has $12 million in grants so far for planning and testing projects but will need more to implement the projects at full scale, she said.

Another project NCR is developing that will help officials respond to disasters is an integrated GIS based on 19 maps, Moore said. Detailed GIS maps that include important datasets, especially of critical infrastructures, are invaluable aids to knowing evacuation routes, placement of resources and population distribution, McRay said.

Geographic information systems data is becoming increasingly vital to first responders because they can use it to model incidents before they happen, predict their effects and plan accordingly, said Jerry McRay, chief technology officer of Alabama's Emergency Management Agency. After an event, GIS data can inform responders of what they have and what they need.

State leaders must understand the importance of GIS data to emergency response and preparedness and sufficiently fund GIS programs, McRay said. In Mobile, Ala., for instance, "they knew exactly what to do but couldn't do anything" because they didn't have the money, he said.

McRay said emergency responders also need better and faster access to federal satellite imagery, which gives the first look after a storm. Such pictures can direct subsequent aerial reconnaissance, and GIS software can tell the difference between before and after satellite and aerial photos. That can help decision-makers identify trouble spots, inventory their resources and decide what to do with them, he said.

Katrina showed that officials must alert the public as quickly and through as many channels as possible, said Alisoun Moore, chief information officer of Montgomery County, Md. a suburb of Washington, D.C. That includes media outlets, the Internet and hot lines.

In the past six months, some National Capital Region jurisdictions have recently started offering Reverse 911 service, which allows residents to sign up on the Web for emergency alerts, Moore said. Using software from Roam Secure, the service automatically sends subscribers text, voice and e-mail alerts.

Katrina has provided an opportunity for the United States to learn how to better use technology to prepare and respond to such catastrophes. Moore offered some advice for communities as they better define their response. "Use what you got. Make sure you coordinate well and that your technology supports your operational plan."

Keeping an eye on the road

Intelligent transportation systems that include cameras at major intersections and interstate roads can help first responders and motorists better monitor and navigate traffic, said Chip Hultquist, director of the Tennessee-based Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education's Emergency Management Laboratory, which trains first responders to use various technologies.

At some visitor centers and rest stops along Tennessee highways, drivers can see Web camera views of entry and exit areas to Nashville, Hultquist said. Motorists and first responders can also tap into such feeds through handheld devices, he added. "You should be able to access a live feed on [a handheld device]. I know I've done that," he said. "You see how bad traffic is, and you can take the initiative to go the other way if you can. So in a sense, it's sort of a smart evacuation concept. That's nothing new, but the technology availability is relatively new within the last few years."

Through their handheld devices, law enforcement officers can also receive information about traffic conditions or relay new information to emergency operations center officials, who can then disseminate data to other emergency responders and the public, he said.

— Dibya Sarkar


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