Faster, Higher, Safer

Federal, state and local agencies will have their hands full during the 2002 Winter Olympics, but an Internet-based information system will allow them to respond to emergency situations as if they were part of one team.

by News Staff / October 1, 2001
The 2002 Winter Olympic Games take place in just a few months, and while sports fans are pondering how many medals their country will win, officials in Salt Lake City and surrounding municipalities are worrying about other issues: Can we manage a flood of traffic and pedestrians? Can we neutralize the threat of terrorists? Are we prepared for any situation that might arise?

We wont know the answers for sure until the Games end on February 24, but the prognosis looks promising. The Utah Olympic Public Safety Command (UOPSC), an umbrella organization of public safety functions created in 1998 to ensure the safety of athletes and spectators, has adopted an information system that will allow safety personnel from federal, state and local agencies to respond to emergency situations as if they were part of one team.

The information system, which is overseen by Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) of San Diego, is a private, Internet-based network that allows members of the approximately 100 agencies involved in Olympic security -- ranging from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and a dozen police and sheriffs departments to the state Department of Public Works, the National Guard, and numerous hospitals and utilities -- to share data with one another instantly.

Safety Behind the Scenes
SAIC integrated two off-the-shelf products to create the system -- CATS, a consequence-assessment toolset developed by a division of the Department of Defense, and E Team, which was born out of the U.S. militarys efforts to create a wireless tactical network and subsequently retooled as a commercial product -- and configured them to meet the needs of the UOPSC.

CATS is a set of models that simulate both natural and man-made catastrophes, from hurricanes and earthquakes to chemical weapons attacks and hazardous materials spills. "It has a set of tools that lets you figure out how many people in which areas are going to be affected and how to find the resources you need to respond to the crisis," said Jay Creutz, program manager at SAIC. "It does it all on a map, so its very visual and easy for first responders as well as emergency managers to relate to."

CATS helps model how certain events might play out, but the heart of SAICs solution is in the E Team product. E Team provides a complete list of ongoing incidents that public safety officials need to be aware of, a list created and updated by the agency members themselves.

Heres how it works: Each user is issued a user name and password. After logging in using a Web browser, the user can review all current incident reports, be they traffic jams, weather emergencies, evacuations or bomb threats, and sort through them by agency involved, type of incident, location or a number of other criteria. A dispatcher for the fire department, for example, need concern him- or herself only with those incidents labeled "fire."

E Team also features a fully scalable map that can display anything from the entire state to individual streets and intersections. The map, which uses color-coded icons to display current incidents, could be used by traffic officers to search for incidents in their immediate environment. If they spot a fire or accident nearby, they can direct the flow of traffic away from those areas.

Any user can add information to an existing report or create a new incident report, requesting resources -- barricades, facemasks, bomb-sniffing dogs, etc. -- at the same time if necessary. "The basic concept is that everyone will post their information to a central whiteboard in the sky that everyone else can read from," said Creutz, thereby eliminating the need to contact each agency independently when an incident occurs.

"Its a fabulous information-gathering and coordination tool," said Chris Kramer, public information officer at UOPSC. "In any large scale event, whether planned like the Olympics or a Super Bowl or a crisis situation like an earthquake or flood, you have a tremendous number of resources -- multiple agencies, multiple jurisdictions -- that have to be utilized and coordinated. When you can have all of this information in one repository for easy access, its a good thing."

Despite the drive for free-flowing information, users can restrict access to certain types of data should the need arise. The FBI, for example, might decide that widespread knowledge of a bomb threat might do more harm than good at first.

As users post incident reports, workers in the Olympic Command Center look for conflicting information or duplicate postings. They delete the latter and contact the individuals who posted the former to verify data. "Were trying to provide a common operating picture across the entire theater so that all the individuals and agencies that have a role in supporting public safety are looking at the same information, so that there arent six different versions of whats going on," said Creutz.

SAIC stores incident data in multiple servers in various locations and backs it up in duplicate to ensure that nothing will keep public safety officers from communicating with one another.

Usability is Key
UOPSC and SAIC are still molding E Team to meet their needs, but the system has performed well in tests involving more than 700 users. "What weve found through practical experience is that fewer than half the people have gone through any training when they show up for the exercise," said Creutz. "Once we get an account set up for them, within 15 to 20 minutes, theyre up and using the system quite successfully."

Usability will be critical for the security staff since theyll receive an influx of supplemental support once the Games get under way. The ease with which E Team distributes information will also come in handy with UOPSCs unofficial partner, the media.

"In any crisis situation, you want to monitor what the media is saying because sometimes they find out whats going on before anyone else does," said Kramer. "If we identify [fresh information on the news], we can post that on E Team and the appropriate people can respond accordingly."

Once the Games end, Utah plans to keep the E Team system in place so that public safety agencies can use it should the need arise. "The only difference between a special event and an unanticipated disaster is that, in the first case, youve had time to think about it and plan for it," said Creutz. "But everything else youre doing is exactly the same."