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IBM building emergency IM network

Designed to let police, fire and other agencies communicate across disparate systems, the network should help eliminate the bottlenecks that now hamper emergency response efforts.

Instant messaging is going to the scene of the crime.

IBM and a consortium of government agencies in the Washington, D.C., area are creating a wireless emergency network that will allow approximately 40 police, fire and safety agencies to communicate in real time via instant messaging and access one another's databases.

The Capital Wireless Integrated Network (CapWIN) will be the first of its kind in the nation and eliminate many of the communications bottlenecks that now hamper coordinating responses to an emergency such as the Sept. 11 disaster, supporters say.

"All these places have different systems from different vendors that are wonderful, but they can't talk to one another," said George Ake, the project manager for CapWIN.

Just as important, CapWIN will fit on top of existing communications and computer systems, which will make it easier to implement and expand into other jurisdictions. Baltimore is already considering joining the network, according to Kent Blossom, director of safety and security systems for IBM.

The instant message application will come from Jabber, while Informant Software will provide the database access system, Blossom added.

"They did not want to be hooked into any proprietary system," Blossom said. "The purpose of CapWIN is to enable these functions by leveraging existing networks and systems...The hard part is going to be to make sure that we get the user requirements defined correctly the first time."

Congress has authorized a $20 million budget for the project.

Communicating and coordinating
The CapWIN network will let law enforcement agencies and others do three things: communicate with one another over a secure instant messaging network; search multiple databases; and permit better coordination between different agencies or officers responding to an emergency.

A police officer arriving at an emergency, for example, could enter a chat area to get a current summary of the situation while others at distant locations could run license plate checks with different state and federal agencies on vehicles leaving the scene.

The network will run on standard PCs, handhelds and cell phones. On the back end, it will run on clustered IBM eServers that will link to installed servers and databases. The first stage in the project, which will be complete in a year, will revolve around creating and testing the basic network, said Blossom. Later, functions like voice may be added, said Ake.

While the World Trade Center attacks intensified the need for cross-agency and cross-jurisdiction communication, the project actually goes back to 1999. That year, a man threatened to jump off the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which connects Virginia and Maryland.

The standoff lasted seven hours. "He stopped traffic on the whole East Coast," Ake said. The police officers at opposite ends of the bridge couldn't speak directly to each other during the crisis because they came from different agencies and ran independent networks.

Ake created a similar network connecting law enforcement agencies within the state of North Carolina and came out of retirement to run CapWIN, he said. "This is a lot more complicated because you have three jurisdictions (Washington, Virginia and Maryland) and the federal government," he said.

Participating agencies include the Maryland Highway Administration, the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Domestic Preparedness, and police and fire units in Alexandria, Va.; Arlington, Va.; and other regional cities.