Don't wait until the Big One hits

Matt Walton and Elysa Jones say the response to Hurricane Katrina shows that tech isn't factored into emergency communications.

3 min read
In recent weeks, policymakers have started to renew calls for a new emergency communications network. The idea, first broached in the months after Sept. 11, 2001, had languished and is now being brought back in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Any number of members of the Senate and the House of Representatives from both political parties have realized that, along with everything else that went wrong, the communications network needed to coordinate planning and relief utterly failed.

The call now is for the federal government to develop a comprehensive, interoperable emergency communications plan and to provision that plan with equipment. The goal must be true interoperability across the full spectrum of voice and data communications alternatives.

When most of the legislators and government planners speak of such a network, they are generally talking about radio--that most basic communications technology that allows first responders and others to talk with each other, if not with other agencies, during an emergency. There is no doubt that radio is a vital tool and that much work will have to go into clearing spectrum and coordinating bands in order to make that system more efficient.

Data communications technology isn't even factored into the emergency communications equation, and it should be.
To focus strictly on radio, however, would be a mistake because such a focus leaves out the potential of some of our most sophisticated communications technologies that could bring even greater benefits when trying to create order out of the chaos of an emergency. While most people in the business world, and even many people at home, use data communications--whether it's the Internet or an office network--that technology isn't even factored into the emergency communications equation, and it should be.

Our group, the Emergency Interoperability Consortium (EIC), is working not only to raise the visibility of the issue, but in a more fundamental sense, is working to make sure that those networks work to the greatest benefit of all.

We do that by advocating open standards for emergency data communications. While it may not sound at all sexy, the fact is that doing this can improve the efficiency of emergency response and save lives at a fraction of the costs of building new networks.

The goal of our work is to make certain that agencies and institutions that currently can't communicate with each other will be able to do so in an information-rich environment. One way to do that is through use of the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), a standard developed by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) Emergency Management Technical Committee. CAP provides a simple and standardized format for exchanging alerts and warnings over various types of networks. This standard provides a simple and standardized format for exchanging alerts and warnings over various types of networks.

The National Weather Service now offers a CAP version of its weather warnings; the U.S. Geological Survey is incorporating it into warnings for earthquakes, volcanoes and wild fires. The Bush Administration has said all agencies must become CAP-compliant, and the Department of Homeland Security has endorsed the open-standards efforts.

When fully implemented, CAP will allow one data center--say, a police department--to alert both a fire department and a local hospital about an emergency. The newest version, CAP 1.1, is nearing completion and will add even more information to the structured warnings, including visuals. Other elements are being drawn up as well, including a part of the message that will allow responders to send out requests for what types of equipment are needed, as well as more sophisticated data sets targeting the right people in the right places.

This data can be delivered over any kind of network--a fiber optics network, if that's available, or conceivably a hastily constructed Wi-Fi network--to different types of receiving devices, not only to laptops. Because of the open standards, different companies and agencies will be able to tailor their own needs to their own products while still maintaining communications with others.

We hope that as policymakers move forward to investigate and to finance new emergency networks, they will look not only to radio, but also to the vast possibilities that harnessing data communications will provide. In that vein, open standards may represent the fastest, cheapest and most self-sustaining investment that the government can make to ensure that first responders and those they serve get the information they require when and how they need it.