During the early part of this decade, state governments were eager to deliver electronic services to citizens, and as a result, Web portals became the rage. These portals eventually gained in sophistication, and now emergency management and law enforcement officials hope to use the technology to raise the bar for communication -- both within their jurisdictions and regionally.

Whiteboard and radio systems that alienate agencies from one another have been the norm in emergency management functions, but the portal is a way for law enforcement and emergency responders to transcend traditional communication barriers, including disparate radio systems, lack of frequency, collapse of emergency communications systems during disasters that plague state and local first responders, and the barriers of county and state lines to share information in real time. Portals allow for extensive planning before an event occurs and comprehensive review after the fact, as data can be captured and saved. They're also a way for private industry and the public sector to share information about cyber-threats in ways not seen before.

"I see two major trends," said Robert Wolf, CEO and president of Convergence Communications, which has partnered with Microsoft on several portal deployments. "Improvements in technology are making it possible, and there is a growing realization that multiagency collaboration before, during and after an event is fundamental to improving public safety and well-being. Nobody wants to be the next New Orleans."

Convergence markets E-Sponder, a collaboration portal for law enforcement and emergency management that some states, including Wisconsin, are beginning to deploy. "Everyone is getting on the bandwagon for emergency operation center software," said Lori Getter, crisis communications manager for Wisconsin Emergency Management. She said agencies are using the software to assess damages, locate emergency responders and manage resources.

Wyoming has a portal-based Criminal Justice Information Sharing System that lets state courts, law enforcement, the Department of Corrections and other agencies share information in real time. Michigan developed the Michigan Health Alert Network that links 180 hospitals to other state agencies and lets any participant alert the others in the case of biological attack or other crisis. Broward County, Fla., and its neighbors began using a portal to collaborate during major events and recently expanded it for everyday use as a homeland security portal.

The U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT), established in 2003 by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to tackle cyber-security, is sponsoring the development of cyber-security portals -- including one in Washington state and one in Louisiana -- that give the public and private sector a place to share information on cyber-threats daily. The portals are seen as a breakthrough for getting the private sector to share critical information on cyber-security, which can be done anonymously through these portals.

Portals and Subportals

In Wisconsin, the portal is available to all local agencies that might be involved in emergency management procedures. The state rolled out its portal in January 2006, and county and state emergency management personnel are beginning to get a feel for the system. There are many components to the software, such as subportals within a portal, that allow for a flexible, calculated response to an incident.

"For example, when an event occurs, a local fire department or police department could use it to coordinate that response for the incident command activities at the local level," said Bill Clare, planning section supervisor for Wisconsin Emergency Management. "But if [the incident] is large enough that it involves county resources, it needs to be coordinated at the county level. The county emergency management office would likely activate their emergency operations center (EOC), and they could use this to coordinate those activities."

If the event merits a coordinated state response, the state's EOC is activated. Wisconsin is a home rule state, meaning counties manage local events until the situation

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