Virtual Collaboration

Regional portals raise the bar for communication for law enforcement and emergency managers.

by / September 7, 2006
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 is overwhelming, then the state is called in. The entity in charge, either the county or the state, will open the portal, assign users -- agencies that need to be involved in incident management -- and give them the access level necessary.

The agency managing an incident decides whether it wants other agencies logged on to the portal to just read messages or also respond to them. The agency can even allow the participant to administer a subportal within its own jurisdiction. In that case, the agency would go to the emergency operations page, enter the event name and create a new site. The site can be monitored by anyone at an incident who has Internet access and is authorized to be on the system.

"Everyone is able to see what's going on," Clare said. "You're able to put a communication out there where, if you were going to do it with a phone call, you might have to phone 10 agencies. In this case, you could post an announcement or direct people to a particular site for certain information accessible to everyone."

Wisconsin integrated its E-Sponder portal with ESRI's ArcIMS GIS mapping solution, creating the ability to map out resources, personnel, evacuation routes and so on. "So we could say, 'Tell me all the hospitals, schools and nursing homes within a mile of this location,' and then we could show in the mapping system all the other attributes of those hospitals, schools, nursing homes -- emergency phone numbers, number of students, number of teachers, number of patients, etc.," Clare said.

Getter said using the portal is a far cry from emergency management practices of the past. She laughed when she harked back 10 years and remembered photocopying paper documents. "This way, everything is electronic and everything will be really easy to keep track of, especially with the new federal requirements to start having better track of what type of resources are available."

She said one key to success is getting as many jurisdictions on board as possible, and to "practice, practice, practice, so people remember how to use it."

That was a lesson learned in Florida, when Broward County implemented its portal. Officials were determined to create a system that was simple and user-friendly enough for daily use.

"We needed something that was used every day, something that looked and felt like something we were already used to," said Patrick Doliny, CIO of the Broward County Sheriff's Office, whose team manages the regional portal. Using Microsoft SharePoint, and Microsoft Infopath forms and Web services, Broward County came up with a portal that is similar to its intranet system.

The county began using portal technology to manage a range of community events, such as multicultural festivals and its annual Fleet Week celebration. The homeland security portal -- a virtual command center for Broward County and surrounding cities -- ensued from those events.

"We use the system year-round," Doliny said. "It gives us the ability to create operational plans -- and incidents based on an operational plan -- assign tasks and resources, and also monitor events throughout the portal." Surrounding cities using the portal include Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, Pembroke Pines and Miramar. Palm Beach County and Miami-Dade County will be coming aboard soon, Doliny said.

Doliny said navigating from the local intranet to the portal is easy, and the portal has tremendous search capabilities. The biggest challenge comes with the event itself, not the technology, he said. "What we've experienced in various events, like the multicultural festival, we recognize that [the event] takes on a life of its own. Each has a different flavor, so the learning curve is more on the event and how we're going to share information, not on the application."

But that doesn't mean planning isn't essential, and Doliny said Broward is doing it regularly with tabletop and other exercises.

Wolf said portals can provide the missing link in the emergency management planning process.

"The greatest benefit is that for the first time, people who need to be involved in planning but who traditionally have been left out of the planning process can now participate," he said. "A significant problem of Katrina was inadequate planning done in advance of the incident."

Doliny said each event brings its own complexity, and decisions about which cities get what information have to be decided for each event. Cities linked to the portal can receive myriad information, including GIS maps pinpointing 911 calls, incident locations, operational plans, communication among first responders and officials, and "chatting" capabilities. Like the Wisconsin portal, the Broward County portal spawns subportals. Broward County creates and monitors them for each city, Doliny said. "While it's searchable at the top level through all the subportals -- because of the security reasons -- we've structured it that way so you have to have the rights to access these various events."

In developing the portal, Broward County made sure it provided a framework for meeting National Incident Management System (NIMS) requirements. "We've created all the NIMS forms and workflow -- a command post, an operational post, a planning post, a logistical post," Doliny said. "We have that structure as dictated by NIMS."

Strictly Cyber
The U.S. CERT-sponsored portals could have profound effects on cyber-security in those regions -- at least that's what the DHS is hoping as it invests dollars into regional cyber-security portals.

In Louisiana, the U.S. CERT collaborated on a regional cyber-security portal with the Southeast Cyber Anti-Terrorism and Security -- a regional cyber-security coordination group. "The idea is to get the private sector, the public sector, state and local governments, and the federal government to have a way to post cyber-security attack information to a secure portal," said Mike Gusky, chief information security officer (CISO) of Louisiana. "A secure way of information sharing, that's what this is. We're all in this Internet cesspool together."

The portal includes Louisiana entities and some groups from Mississippi, as well as the U.S. CERT, which monitors the portal. "There are no boundaries; we're not looking at a state line," Gusky said. "[The U.S.] CERT is looking for regional models."

The ability for a private entity to reveal a cyber-attack anonymously via the portal could help break down the barriers that have kept the private sector mum about cyber-break-ins. "As the chief information security officer, I don't really care that it's [Bank A] in New Orleans that's currently under some kind of cyber-attack. I do care that it's a financial institution in my backyard."

The portal gives Gusky the information he has sought previously and not had access to, and allows him to notify owners of critical infrastructure -- banks, electric companies, chemical companies -- that their security may be compromised. "It gives me the opportunity to work indirectly with the private sector and also to use their information," he said. "I don't have a mandate as a state security guy to deal with the private sector. I don't collaborate with them on a normal basis, so this gives me the opportunity to share anonymously."

Not just anybody can post to the portal. The agency or business is vetted through an FBI background check before being given access. That ensures the information is real and won't be used maliciously. It provides a secure outlet for private enterprise to reveal break-ins without compromising reputation, and it gives everyone a direct line to U.S. CERT.

"In the past, you might submit information to one of the federal portals -- one of the federal agencies -- and it would be like sending it into a black hole," Gusky said. "You may not see any response."

Members can log in from anywhere on the Internet. They get secure e-mails notifying them of an attack, and can report concerns anonymously or communicate with U.S. CERT directly.

The Puget Sound Alliance for Cyber Security in Washington state went live with its U.S. CERT portal early this year and has a "few members" according to David Matthews, deputy CISO of the Puget Sound Alliance. The vision for the Puget Sound portal is to include regional cities and counties, the Pacific CISO Forum, as well as national groups like the Information Systems Security Association, and the Information Systems Audit and Control Association.

"One of the visions for that portal was a way for them to communicate and have a place where they could centrally put up calendar items and events that are going on," Matthews said. "The other thought for the portal is a way for us to publish information -- security best practices, policy, guidelines, policy templates, things like that.

"It's an information portal that also, because it's connected to U.S. CERT, gives us a place for people to go and find out what the latest threats are, and to possibly communicate with each other about what they're seeing in their environment."
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor