What happens in a crisis? First thing, the communications teams from emergency agencies drive to a designated emergency communications center to turn on the lights and power up the computers.
But what if the roads are gone? What if the power is out and the computers down for the count?
With this scenario in mind, government authorities have turned to Public Information and Emergency Response (PIER), a Web-based virtual communications center intended to foster ongoing interagency communications regardless of circumstance. The Coast Guard uses it, and the port authorities of Los Angeles and Houston have just signed on.
"We are trying to integrate our emergency management systems with the systems of our partners here at the port," said Arley Baker, director of public relations and legislative affairs at the Port of Los Angeles, where federal and state authorities, customs, border patrol and the port's own police force must work in close cooperation. "All these agencies need to be able to talk and be on the same page."
That "page" is soon to be a hosted Web site, replacing the old scenario of emergency response personnel gathered in a physical room to share computer terminals. With PIER, staff can log on remotely to collaborate on key messages and broadcast those messages to the media and other stakeholders. Staff can also upload photos and videos, and distribute them as needed to media, employees and others.
The system can also create and manage lists of potential recipients, and can blast out messages to these recipients in text and audio forms.
"Say a public affairs officer logs on to the system and types out a text message," explained Gerald Baron, founder and vice president of marketing for AudienceCentral, which markets PIER, "then the system converts that text to voice and calls out automatically to a list that you select."
The Coast Guard uses this voice call-out function to broadcast marine security notifications, adding a request that recipients visit a Web site to confirm receipt of the message.
"Everything you need to communicate is right there on a single platform, and it is completely integrated," Baron said of PIER's ability to create, broadcast and confirm messages.
That all-in-one aspect is a big plus, according to Port of Houston Authority Chairman Jim Edmonds.
"[PIER] manages every aspect of communications, allowing nontechnical users to control the entire process, including Web postings and notifications via telephone, e-mail and fax," Edmonds said in an e-mail to Government Technology.
In addition to contact lists and calling capability, some of those integrated tools include tracking media requests, and the ability for managers to rapidly approve and post documents created with the system.
Baker said he was drawn by the ability to preconfigure the system, loading it with media lists and other data that one might not be able to access otherwise in the midst of a crisis.
"We can do a lot of upfront programming that will take away a lot of the stuff that has to be done on scene," he said. "We can create a communications platform and customize it with different distribution lists, so that when we are in a crisis situation we are not scrambling."
While integration is a selling point, PIER's' biggest advantage lies in letting communications professionals work remotely because, by its very nature, a crisis situation may render physical proximity impossible.
"In case of emergency there's a very good chance that you won't make it to the port, because of the earthquake, because of the dirty bomb," Baker said. "You just can't assume that everybody's going to be here."
There are some physical limitations to the system -- especially the need for an Internet connection. Given the Web-based nature of PIER, a live Internet link is a minimum requirement. There are workarounds, however: With today's Internet-ready mobile devices, the opportunities to get online are numerous.
However, what happens if the Internet is entirely down in the crisis area? Even that unlikely scenario can be managed, Baron said.
"I have a communications team somewhere, and I have a cell phone, so I can call them up," he said. "As long they have Internet access, as long as I can get to somebody who has access to the system, I still can tell them what needs to go up on the system."
Universities, school districts and fire departments have already deployed the system. In Houston, Edmonds expressed optimism for a system that could bring new efficiencies to crisis communications.
"We expect this new communications platform to make a difference," he said. "A variety of potential scenarios can obviously have a tremendous impact on the port and surrounding areas, so it goes without saying that setting up truly effective and rapid communication processes is key for us."