March 23, 2006
 

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November 2003

A Capitol Idea

In the wake of 9/11, D.C.ís Emergency Management Agency upgrades its IT arsenal to bring mobility to the frontlines of security.
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By Matt Purdue




It’s a nondescript building at the corner of 14th and U streets, set amidst a neighborhood of check-cashing outlets and delis. In a town like Washington, D.C., it’s a structure that’s almost invisible in a Legoland of mundane, governmental glass boxes. But inside lies a cutting-edge technology center and the hub of a mobile workforce that gives fresh legs to the over-used term “mission critical.”

This is the headquarters of the District of Columbia’s Emergency Management Agency (EMA). Ned Ingraham, senior manager of IT for the District and the agency’s technology guru, describes his organization’s role without an ounce of braggadocio. “This is one of the few 24/7 operations of its kind in the country,” he notes.

Around the clock 365 days a year, the EMA serves as the coordinating nexus for public safety and law enforcement agencies throughout D.C. From fires and snowstorms to political protests, the EMA is the conduit of information and an irreplaceable link in the chain of command. During a crisis, the Emergency Operations Center at 14th and U serves as the Mayor’s command post. Yet while “emergency” is the EMA’s raison d’etre, Ingraham is quick to point out that the agency monitors events that are anything but urgent: charity fundraisers, sporting events, festivals.

D.C.’s EMA, however, will always be inextricably linked with September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks marked a watershed for the organization; it is not an overstatement to say the agency was reborn from the ashes of that day. As part of a $3.9 million upgrade bankrolled by homeland security funds, the EMA’s command center was relocated and outfitted with the latest equipment. Now the center is state of the art. It boasts a video wall covered by three 12-foot by 5-foot panels capable of displaying up to 24 video and data feeds simultaneously. There are new workstations for the more than two-dozen public agency representatives who might man the center during an emergency.

EMA’s mobile strategy has also been given a kickstart. From a technology standpoint, roughly half of the command center is transportable. Servers and PCs can be quickly packed up and moved if necessary. In fact, EMA personnel can shove off from 14th and U and connect to the District’s network from various points throughout the area, including one of the convention centers. The EMA sports 30 wirelessly enabled Dell notebook PCs that can be deployed to set up a remote operations center.

It’s all a giant leap from the pre-9/11 days, when the “command” center had no e-mail, no external network links, in fact. Emergency data was transmitted by printers and fax machines. “No one can deny the impact of that day and the lessons learned,” notes Ingraham. “There is an element of war here. Whenever you are faced with an emergency situation, it is a battle. I am not a military guy, but I have studied history. And throughout history you’ve found that when there are equal forces on each side, the guy with the best intelligence wins.”

Ingraham has also outfitted the agency with 20 HP iPAQ handhelds running Microsoft Pocket PC. The vital role of the iPAQs are as mapping tools. D.C.’s EMA relies on ESRI’s ArcGIS 8.3 geographic software on its servers to handle street maps and location data for the entire district. On the iPAQs, the agency uses the mobile version of ArcGIS, ArcPad, to plan and coordinate activities at the point of action. Rather than having to play a ping-pong game of physically examining locations, then checking paper maps and then repeating the process, EMA personnel carry the District in their pockets—they can store about one-quarter of the city’s maps on a single CompactFlash card. “Our job is to gather as much information as possible as rapidly as possible,” Ingraham explains, “then get it to the decision-makers and back out to the field as quickly as possible. Speed is essential.”

Mapping data displayed on the video screens at the command center can be translated to the city streets thanks to the handheld devices. “We use GIS for planning purposes, to examine how events will play out spatially,” Ingraham notes.

Every weekend between March and October, the EMA’s mobile command vans and its personnel are on the streets, monitoring events ranging from the Komen Race for the Cure breast cancer fundraiser to political rallies.

Earlier this year, EMA staffers were coordinating planning efforts for the national figure skating championships and the District’s annual marathon, which were being held simultaneously. When officials discovered that a portion of the marathon route cut through an area secured for the skating competition, EMA personnel grabbed their iPAQs, checked the mapping software and were able to immediately reroute the marathon without breaking stride.

According to Bill Schroeder, ESRI’s homeland security industry manager, public safety and law enforcement agencies are quickly jumping on the mobile mapping bandwagon. When asked how busy he is, Schroeder replies: “It’s unbelievable!” Government agencies have finally realized that the geographic information stored in their databases can be leveraged for critical infrastructure documentation and analysis. And by using GIS technology to consolidate that information and move it to the field, decisions can be made in real-time.

For example, Schroeder explains, D.C.’s EMA staff can use GIS software to run detailed models predicting the spread of chemical and radioactive plumes. “A worker on the street can use these models in the event of one of these man-made instances, see where the danger is and get out if necessary,” says Schroeder. “In this business we call that ‘consequence assessment.’”

Perhaps the key role for handhelds in emergency management is in data collection, Schroeder adds. He is hoping to introduce D.C.’s EMA to Tablet PCs (ESRI offers its customers a free version of ArcGIS for the Tablet PC) to streamline data capture in the field. “These are excellent tools for building inspections and damage assessments,” he notes. “After a storm, you can have someone hanging out of a helicopter with a Tablet PC loaded with a simple interface. They can check off ‘roof damaged’ or ‘total loss.’”

Today D.C. EMA’s iPAQs rely on CompactFlash cards for accessing maps, and other data is synchronized via cable at the agency’s headquarters. But Ingraham is already exploring the possibility of using wireless connectivity to update event data and transmit it directly to the command center. (D.C. operates a proprietary 800MHz wireless network, and is currently building new transmission towers to expand its footprint to enable 99-percent above-ground coverage.)

The EMA is also examining more powerful devices that can run full Microsoft Windows-based applications. Wearable computers recently caught Ingraham’s eye. But, he points out, handhelds will remain part of the EMA’s strategy. “I still see a use for them,” he says. “For one, there is the cost factor. We can buy many more iPAQs than wearables.”

Ingraham also sees tomorrow’s security needs being met by Web technology. Currently the EMA is deliberately deploying its Crisis Information Management System, a Web-based extranet that will allow public agencies to input and access data to be used to mitigate many types of crisis situations. The D.C. police are currently using the system and Ingraham plans to connect all of D.C.’s emergency services to the network. The system will handle situation updates, resource requests, checklists, tasks and responsibilities, a personnel database and other information. Eventually Ingraham hopes to add wireless access to this data, as well.•
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