After terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in September, Verizon and AT&T Wireless started monitoring cell phone signals near the disaster site. The wireless carriers were trying to pinpoint survivors who might be placing calls from beneath the rubble. Sadly, their efforts failed. But the attempt helps highlight the many, often novel, roles mobile technology has played since the attacks in New York and Washington.

Tightening security and re-examining emergency response plans, government agencies have sought new tools to forestall future attacks or, failing that, to save lives on the scene. Initiatives that were already underway to fight terror with technology -- including mobile computing and wireless communications -- have gained a new sense of urgency.

One mobile device pressed into service at ground zero in New York was Symbol Technology's PPT 2800 handheld computer. Links Point of Norwalk, Conn., supplied the units, with integrated bar code scanners, global positioning system receivers and custom software, so workers with the Fire Department of New York City (FDNY) could use them to catalog items they extracted from the rubble during the recovery effort.

The FDNY declined a request for an interview, but a department official quoted in New York's Newsday confirmed that department workers were using Links Point's system.

Workers used the handheld computers to enter data on each item found, while the GPS system logged the location, date and time. "All they have to do is thumb through a scroll-down menu to describe what the item is, scan a bar code that gets attached to the item and hit a button to enter the record," said Greg Fucheck, vice president of sales at Links Point. Later, the worker inserted the PPT 2800 in a docking station to transmit the data over a wired connection to a central computer.

Although lower Manhattan is just the sort of urban canyon where GPS location is virtually impossible, Fucheck noted that the World Trade Center site is now a 16-acre open field with a view of the sky. Also, he said, the Federal Aviation Administration provided technology at the site to augment the location data received from GPS satellites.

HAZMAT Data in the Field

Other workers at the site carried rugged notebook computers with integrated wireless communications from Itronix of Spokane, Wash. The company donated 10 of its machines to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and another 10 to the FDNY.

FEMA's computers were equipped with CoBRA (Chemical Biological Response Aide), a database and software package designed to help responders at the scene of a hazardous materials incident. The software's developer, Defense Group Inc. (DGI) in Alexandria, Va., began packaging the system last summer with Itronix notebooks.

Using data from federal agencies and commercial sources, CoBRA provides fast access to instructions for responding to dangerous chemicals, biological hazards and explosives. For example, if a truck carrying hazardous materials is involved in an incident, a responder can enter the number displayed on the truck's HAZMAT identification placard into the system. "Instantly, they get a readout on whether you need a standoff distance if something gets released," said Donald Ponikvar, vice president at DGI. "What are the first aid and cleanup guidelines? What kind of protective gear would my responders have to be wearing should there be an incident involving a truck that's carrying this stuff?"

The system also logs the results of each query. "The software is designed to collect all this information on the status automatically, time tag it, send it to the higher headquarters and, when it arrives there, send the commander a warning that he's got everything coming in a report," Ponikvar said. "It allows him with one click to merge those reports into a status of all his units, so he can see the overall status of the site."

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer