'Information can be put together so it can be shared across organizations. Right now, that's a phone call for the city manager to find out what's happening -- why is that fire truck going down the street? What's happening? A phone call is the only way they have to communicate it'
Department of Homeland Security grants are helping cities across the country strengthen their defenses. So far, most of those dollars have paid for much-needed equipment for first responders -- the so-called "boots and suits" -- or they covered overtime pay for public safety personnel when the federal government raised the alert level. But some localities, including four chosen to participate in the DHS' new Regional Technology Integration (RTI) initiative, are using grants to boost interoperability.
The RTI initiative provides funding to recipients for creating interoperable communication systems, and in the process, the DHS intends to develop models for the rest of the country. Anaheim, Calif., and Cincinnati, Ohio, are the first of four regions announced to pilot the RTI program. The DHS will give each jurisdiction $10 million for its project.
The amount of homeland security resources being directed toward technology projects varies widely, said Chris Dixon, digital government project coordinator for the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.
"Whether the money is going for IT or the boots and suits is going to be dictated by what each state's internal homeland security planning process decides," he said. "The amount of money spent on technology by states is very uneven, probably ranging from zero in some states to a small percentage in others."
There are two primary sources for federal funding, according to Dixon. Research and development funding, which has gone mostly to universities and research labs, is available through the DHS. Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grants, also disbursed through the DHS, are handed out to cities to help protect critical infrastructure, ports and mass transit against terrorist attacks.
The Office for Domestic Preparedness within the Federal Emergency Management Agency also administers much of the federal grant money. These grants go to states to be disbursed where needed. "Basically all states have to do to get ODP money is have a domestic preparedness plan in place," Dixon said.
States are required to relinquish 80 percent of the federal funding to locals, unless a deal is struck whereby the money is spent on a regional project that includes both state and local agencies.
Obviously all funding won't be spent on IT-related projects, Dixon said, but a larger percentage of it should be. "We know that the nature of intelligence gathering, as well as incident management, are two very highly technology-dependent practices, and not having technology broken out in some significant way -- forcing the states to think about it -- is undercutting it as an integral part of the process," he said.
"That regional stuff, the urban area [grants] may do a better job of emphasizing IT," Dixon said. "It may be a case where each state's homeland security assessment and strategy process may need to be a little more cognizant of the sorts of things UASI is doing. That may really be the issue here."
A few communities throughout the country are using federal grant monies on IT-related projects. Colorado reportedly pooled its homeland funding with local governments on a regional radio system that could benefit all. In California's Santa Clara County, 18 jurisdictions comprising 30 first-responder agencies teamed with Northrop Grumman on a $1.3 million regional interoperability project funded by federal homeland security grants. Lucas County, Ohio, used $1.4 million of the $1.6 million Ohio allotted the county in homeland security money to finance a communication system that will let police, fire and other first responders talk to each other.
Just 50 cities will get UASI grants this year, Dixon said, but more could be trying. "When you're looking at between $5 million and $30 million per state [actually $6.2 million to nearly $50 million for the UASI grants], then you start dividing it 80/20, and then you start dividing it among all the different needs, it gets to be pretty small pretty quick," Dixon said.
The only pipeline from the federal government to feed such regional IT-related projects is the RTI initiative, which specifically targets UASI grant recipients ready and willing to be involved in a pilot project to develop interoperability.
Collaboration Is Key
In a collaborative effort that resulted in an RTI grant, Anaheim and EDS unveiled a virtual operations center for the Southern California city in July. The portal offers information from the city's dispatch system, its GIS maps, GPS tracking and traffic videos, providing access "on the fly" for police, fire, EMS and public utilities in case of an emergency, according to Debra Winter, EDS' business client manager.
The portal gives officials a "fused command and control vision of what's going on in the city," Winter said. "The vision for the city is to get all organizations and departments within the city who really respond to disasters, attacks or emergencies to work from one common base."
Without the portal, city officials would need an actual, physical emergency operations center where officials would meet and work on a disaster, in some cases by accessing data that may be available only on specific computers, Winter said. "We've pulled all of those digital assets into one portal where it's available."
Tom Wood, Anaheim assistant city manager, said it is a simple idea but an elegant solution nevertheless. "It brings together everything you have electronically into a virtual place," he said. "Most people are building expensive emergency operations centers and command centers that require people to come to those specific locations. We've done the same thing virtually, which doesn't lock you into a specific place that could be wiped out."
First responders and law enforcement officers will use the portal every day, so if and when a major incident occurs, there will be no downtime having to relearn the system. "People won't forget how to use the system," said Jerry Hauer, director of the Response to Emergencies & Disaster Institute. "It has to be second nature."
Anaheim Police Chief John Welter was a sergeant for the San Diego Police Department when a gunman opened fire in a crowded McDonald's. Access to the restaurant's floor plan would have helped police determine where the gunman and patrons were located, Welter said, adding that the new portal will deliver that kind of information.
"Anyone who has managed a major incident knows the value of this software," Welter said.
The partnership with EDS and the city's heavy lobbying helped turn heads at the DHS and eventually landed Anaheim the grant, Winter said. "We used our collective resources to get the word out to DHS, other parts of the federal government and the state so they could hear about what Anaheim is doing."
RTI's goal is to encourage models that facilitate development and integration of new technologies with existing ones, according to DHS spokesman Donald Tighe. "I use the word 'integration' because the point of RTI isn't just the introduction of new technology, but specifically the integration of those technologies with existing systems, like first responder, fire and police systems already in place."
All four RTI locations are similar in that they've pushed the envelope in IT, but by design they're different in their applications of IT and their homeland security needs.
"From what we know, there isn't anybody out there doing anything similar to this," Winter said. "There are lots of UASI grants, but most people are using those for building up their infrastructure with equipment and reserving some of the money for overtime if we go to orange."
The DHS intends to develop best practices based on the experiences of RTI participants, Tighe said. "The point of the RTI program is specifically to be collaborative and for us to bring some scientific and engineering expertise to bear in meeting and working with leadership in the communities on protection, response and preparedness. The country would benefit more from having replicable models that stem from a best-practices and lessons-learned component of RTI."
Tighe said reports and models will be developed from each of the four projects to create a model for speeding the integration of new technology.
The DHS has flexible requirements for participants in the RTI pilots, as long as one result is collaboration among agencies and jurisdictions. "They're trying to get collaboration started," Winter said. "That's the message. You've got to start somewhere."
Starting in Anaheim will bring benefits to nearby cities, such as Long Beach. "Anaheim, in terms of the UASI grant, is an urban area, and there are 50 cities attached to that urban area," Winter said. "Their goal is to get the 50 cities talking. Because if something happens in Anaheim, that's going to affect Long Beach, and if something happens in Long Beach, that's going to affect Anaheim."
Is this a concerted effort by the DHS to encourage investment of federal funds in interoperability projects? "Certainly it reflects a broader effort on our part to make sure we're working with our state-level and local partners to make sure they have the tools, technology, training and resources to move forward," Tighe said.
GIS mapping, CAD systems and GPS tracking technology were the basic requirements for the first phase, which were relatively easy to meet. Sharing those across jurisdictions is the intended result.
"That information can be put together so it can be shared across organizations," Winter said. "Right now, that's a phone call for the city manager to find out what's happening -- why is that fire truck going down the street? What's happening? A phone call is the only way they have to communicate it."
"Most larger cities have GIS maps," she continued. "A lot of them are stepping into the wireless arena and looking at how they can use technology -- all of that feeds into this. Again it's a process for working together. I've talked to a lot of cities, and a lot of them are ready for this. What this really is is a portal. It's a process of getting people to work together and putting everything in one place."
Phase II, when and if it happens, will facilitate the development of chemical, biological and nuclear warning systems or preventive technology that can almost literally sniff the air and detect gas or chemical elements in the air and communicate that as a data element. The technology takes guesswork out of the process of determining what's in the air and if it's dangerous.
Technology exists today that can detect a gas or chemical, pinpoint where it's coming from and where it's going. For instance, if a gas were released at the convention center, GIS mapping would help locate the gas's origin, a weather system would detect the direction of the wind by a plume that is released, and an evacuation could be done based on that data.
Anaheim hopes a successful implementation of Phase I will prompt the federal government to supply more funding for Phase II and possibly a Phase III.