After the World Trade Center attacks in September 2001, many pets fared better than people trapped in their homes in the evacuated area. According to an issue brief published by the International Longevity Center-USA (ILC-USA), volunteers began retrieving animals from apartments in that part of Lower Manhattan within 24 hours. "At the same time," wrote Nora O'Brien, ILC-USA's director of partnerships, "abandoned older and disabled people waited for up to seven days for an ad hoc medical team to rescue them."

When board members and staff at the Ohio Heartland Community Action Commission (OHCAC) read that report, they got an idea for a local homeland security project. The study indicated the need to track seniors and other residents who might need extra help in an emergency, said Howard Snow, a volunteer for AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), who works with the OHCAC's Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP).

New York lacked a comprehensive information source detailing which residents relied on Meals on Wheels, and which needed medicine, oxygen or help from nursing aides. Safety and health officials didn't know where they were, Snow said. 'Nobody went out and knocked on doors."

The OHCAC's four-county service area also lacked this information. Agency officials asked Snow and another VISTA volunteer (who has since left the program) to develop a way to find residents with special needs in the event of a disaster. The result is the Homeland Individual Locator System (HILS).

Health, Hazards, Heat

HILS is designed to give emergency responders the data needed to aid residents during man-made or natural disasters. The database stores personal information, such as health conditions, major medications, other people living in the household, pets in the home that might threaten emergency personnel, entrance locations, the type of fuel used for heating, and names and phone numbers of emergency contacts. It also links each residence to its county, township, school district, police jurisdiction and other geographic entities.

Although the project particularly targets senior citizens, anyone can enroll in the database. People provide information by completing surveys, in English or Spanish, on paper or online.

The OHCAC, a private, not-for-profit organization, serves Crawford, Marion, Morrow and Richland counties. So far, the agency has distributed surveys in Marion and Crawford, but plans to extend efforts to other parts of the state. It is also marketing HILS to agencies across the United States, said Brenda Tharp, RSVP director for the Marion and Crawford bicounty program. The OHCAC launched the HILS project in April 2003. Residents started completing surveys in the fall, and as of early January, the database held information on about 250 residents, mainly in Marion County.

One unusual aspect of the project is its shoestring budget. VISTA workers receive a stipend through AmeriCorps VISTA. The OHCAC helps other volunteers with extra costs, Tharp said. To print pamphlets advertising the program, she said she pays a local trade school with money she can "beg, borrow and barter."

Philip Richardson, the OHCAC's management information administrator, used Microsoft Access to develop an early version of HILS. But after talking with local public safety personnel, officials at the OHCAC decided they could potentially put the system to work for communities across the country. Access can't hold enough records for a nationwide application, he said.

Price is Attractive

To develop a more robust and fully secured version of the system, Kerry Fetherolf, owner of Canton Webworks in Canton, Ohio, was hired. He built it in MySQL, a freeware database management system. "The price is attractive," he said. The system is also extremely robust and portable, and can be made highly secure, he added.

Fetherolf was beta testing the system in January and expected to have it fully operational by spring. Users

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer