patient illnesses to determine what the agent is and how to treat it.

"So much of the response protocols that we have are really sort of consensus documents by experts, and we anticipate that in an actual event we will do a lot of learning on what are, in fact, the best responses to make," Mastrangelo said. "If this rapid learning goes on, then what's necessary is to rapidly disseminate that information across the country, and the only way you can do that is with modern computing and telecommunications equipment."

Industry Standard Technology

The network is built with industry standard technology as opposed to "proprietary architectures designed specifically for this purpose," said Bryan Wood, vice president and general manager of Dell's government segment. "That really brings a number of benefits, not the least of which are the rapid ability to scale and the reliability - and perhaps more importantly, it's cost effective and efficient."

Adherence to industry standards also points to future interoperability, Mastrangelo said. "Off-the-shelf technology meets the needs for fast deployment. Industry-standard technology means that as we bring on new partners, interoperability of equipment will be more likely. We need to build on the base of the health network to include more partners to assure continuity of operations during a national emergency and to build reliability into the system."

Ultimately, Texas officials want the network to facilitate communication not only with e-mail and faxes, but also through wireless devices such as cell phones, pagers and PDAs, enabling health officials across the state to analyze data more quickly.

Of course, achieving that vision will demand more funding.

"What we're facing now is we need to convince our political leadership that we can take advantage of this tremendous infrastructure by tying it all together logically and getting a real jump start in that connectivity with hospitals," said Wayne Farrell, district director of the Bell County Public Health District.

So far, the network has taken advantage of a $52 million grant the state received through the CDC. In addition, five local health departments recently received $800,000 each from the Texas Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund Board. But as far as the connectivity some officials envision for the future, the case has yet to be made.

"We're doing the best we can to educate some of our state leadership to work toward that goal," Farrell said. "The shortfall that we have right now is the local connectivity to law enforcement, and at this point we can't really identify a funding mechanism to bring on those local law enforcement agencies."

But at least now there's a clear plan for connectivity, something that was lacking in 1999. "We're still in the Pony Express age," Mastrangelo said. "But I anticipate that five years from now we'll have a lot of applications that we're really just dreaming about now."

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor