group of people," said Mark Zimmerman, FEMA's project manager of the Disaster Management E-Government initiative. "The IM component is a pretty popular feature. You don't want to keep things from the public, but you want to keep your conversations with your fellow counties or whoever else to a small group of people. IM provides, essentially, a way to control certain information among those that really have a need to know, and then through the portal, a way to broadcast to a wider audience."

Once a first responder has been verified by FEMA, he or she can access the IM application's tools -- a chat utility, discussion-thread (similar to a threaded newsgroup) and a collaboration center with a virtual hard drive that allows first responders to work on files in real time. First responders can share any type of file -- PDFs, maps, Word documents, spreadsheets, etc. -- through the collaboration center and chat tool. In addition, FEMA said IM communications are safeguarded with 128-bit, end-to-end encryption.

At press time, approximately 8,000 verified first responders were using the IM applications, according to FEMA. To validate first responders, FEMA needs the first responder's first name, last name and e-mail address, but personnel with .gov, .mil or .us e-mail addresses are automatically verified. First responders also can be verified through nongovernmental associations, such as firefighter associations, or a county emergency management officer.

FEMA essentially acts as an ASP, hosting the IM application's back-end work as first responders use the collaboration center or chat utility. Zimmerman said this is critical because FEMA understands both the wide range and age of technology infrastructures at first responder command centers.

FEMA purchased its IM package from Bantu Inc., which has carved a niche for itself in the federal market.

"What's critical is understanding the community you're trying to reach," Zimmerman said. "The responder community, as a whole, is IT inverse. They're not IT professionals, so the application has to be easy and intuitive."

Despite not launching an intensive marketing campaign to educate first responders about IM availability, he said, FEMA is pleased with the adoption rate.

Assessing IM

Though IM has demonstrated its use in the public sector, it is still fighting an image problem.

"IM today is where e-mail was in 1994 or '95," said Michael Osterman, president and founder of Osterman Research, a market research firm specializing in the messaging market. "A lot of people in the early days of e-mail said, 'Why do we really need e-mail? We've got telephones.' Today, a lot of people say, 'Why do we really need IM? We have e-mail and telephones.'

"A lot of people see IM as fairly redundant," Osterman continued. "They see it as a potential time waster because a lot of conversations are on the order of, 'Hey Bill, are you ready for lunch?' To some extent, there's a cultural issue with IM -- the corporate culture really dictates whether an organization is going to adopt it readily, or be reluctant or opposed to IM."

The one dramatic difference between private- and public-sector culture is government has more to lose, he said. A technology mistake or miscue can have serious public-policy ramifications.

Still, governments could save costs in several areas by deploying IM, he said.

"If you look at a traditional call center environment, most of that is an individual on the other end of a telephone line," he said. "If you can replace that telephone with an IM interface, that representative goes from handling one customer at a time to maybe handling four, six or 12 customers at a time, because they can handle multiple calls simultaneously."

Such a course of action would save governments staff time and money by allowing them to replace

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor