Mobile Imperative

Terrorist attacks boost interest in mobile technologies for investigation and emergency response.

by / April 15, 2002
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."

If no wireless coverage is available, the user can save the reports on a disk and send it via a runner to the command post.

Since Sept. 11, DGI has seen a substantial increase in Web and phone inquiries about the system, Ponikvar said. "Our Web site has had more hits in one day than we used to get in a whole week, previously."

Tools for Bomb Techs

Public safety officials also started clamoring for news on an initiative to develop a mobile resource for bomb technicians. "There was always a willingness to work and participate in the project, but now people are calling, wanting to know what the status is, what can they do to help," said Tom Thurman, associate professor at Eastern Kentucky University's Fire Safety and Engineering Technology Program. Thurman directs the project, which is sponsored by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).

Like CoBRA, the new system will operate on a mobile computer and store a wealth of data needed by state and local responders at the scene of an incident. It will also give bomb technicians wireless access to supplementary information from the FBI's private intranet, Law Enforcement Online (LEO), and "the hundreds of Web sites that could be of use to a bomb technician or a HAZMAT team," Thurman said. This information, maintained by industry and government sources, is continually updated and therefore better conveyed online than stored on a CD-ROM.

Emergency responders might also use the system to share information from the field. "Let's say that in this age of transglobal terrorism, we have a terrorist incident unfolding in Washington, D.C., with improvised devices," Thurman said. "The bomb squad gets in, finds the devices and takes them apart before they can explode."

Then someone in Los Angeles finds bombs of the same type. "The team in Washington takes digital photographs of these devices and uploads that onto LEO, from which they can be immediately downloaded by the bomb squad in Los Angeles." Noting the similarities, the Los Angeles technicians might follow the same procedures as their counterparts in Washington to disarm the bomb.

Two-Way Pagers

Terrorism was a central theme at the annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), held in Toronto in October. The meeting included numerous sessions on mobile technologies. "We've changed gears significantly to tweak the agenda, to provide more guidance on responding to terrorist incidents," said Matthew Snyder, technical administrator at the IACP, interviewed several weeks before the conference. One change was to elevate a talk by Ponikvar from a breakout session to a plenary session.

Since the September attacks, public safety agencies have been looking at how new technologies, new applications and other communications protocols or systems can help them do their jobs during critical incidents, Snyder observed.

For example, he said, some are considering public wireless data networks to supplement their private radio systems when they respond to emergencies. The networks would use two-way pagers. "A command official could instruct all of his subordinate commanders to do something in one fell swoop, or give them a situation report at the touch of a button, when the radio traffic may not be a suitable way to do that," Snyder said.

Mobile Interoperability

While looking at alternative communications pipelines, government agencies also are exploring ways to coordinate activities across departments and jurisdictions. Today, when multiple agencies respond to an emergency, too often they have no way to share information at the scene. "[An officer] has to get on the phone and call a dispatcher, who calls the other department's dispatcher, who then calls the other officer, who might be standing 100 yards away," Snyder observed.

Officials in the Washington, D.C., area are addressing this problem through an initiative called Capital Wireless Integrated Network (CapWIN). The project will develop an interoperable wireless voice- and data-communications system linking public safety and transportation agencies in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Sponsored by the Maryland State Highway Administration, Virginia Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Office of Science and Technology at the NIJ and Public Safety Wireless Network, CapWIN was already in the planning stages when terrorists hit New York and Washington. But the attacks have lit a fresh fire under the initiative, said George Ake, project coordinator for CapWIN at the University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Transportation Technology.

"After the attack on Sept. 11, there was renewed interest in trying to put this thing on the ground and put it together faster than we have in the past," Ake said. Participants had expected to need three or four years to get the system up and running, in part because it required additional funds. "Now that this has happened, there's more interest in trying to fund this thing at a more aggressive rate and get it up in the next couple of years," he said. "More funding sources have materialized, and I think you're seeing a renewed interest by everybody, including all the state and federal agencies that know we have to work together to solve this issue."

"In order to protect the public, we have to be able to get to information, and we have to be able to get to it in real time," Ake said. With the CapWIN system in place, the commander at a scene will know what personnel are present and what resources are available. "He also knows if he needs a specialized piece of equipment, he can look in a database and see which is the closest place that has it, and whether it's available," he said.

Interest in interagency and interjurisdictional communications runs far beyond the Capital Beltway. Through another NIJ-funded program, Ake and his colleagues at CapWIN have been working with agencies in other states, including Kentucky, Alabama, Wisconsin and Alaska, to promote similar interoperability partnerships.

Wanted: Wireless Video

In East Baton Rouge Parish, La., public safety agencies already have interoperable voice communications, thanks to a pilot system developed by the U.S. Department of Justice and Louisiana State University. Those agencies do not yet use mobile computers or wireless data communications. "What we're really trying to get is a wireless video feed," said JoAnne Moreau, director of the parish's Office of Emergency Preparedness.

Today, a giant video screen on the wall of the parish's new emergency operations center can display video from fixed cameras installed at key locations. "We're exploring the different possibilities, if an incident is in a rural part of our community, that would allow us to get some wireless video and feed it back to the center," she said. "But that's very costly." With the country on heightened state of alert, money is tight. "Right now we're spending all our money on personnel and overtime," she said.

Additional Channel

Sharing information among public agencies is crucial in an emergency, but getting information to the public is equally important. California provides notifications and access to its Web portal via wireless personal digital assistants and Internet-enabled cell phones. Soon after Sept. 11, the state's Office of Emergency Services inquired about "using wireless as perhaps an additional channel to provide information to the public in case of an emergency," as well as to state and local government employees, said Arun Baheti, the state's director of eGovernment.

Baheti pointed to the way California used wireless communications during the state's electricity crisis last year. "We were able to take real time energy alerts and send the information to people's cell phones, pagers and wireless PDAs. We were also giving them access to real-time traffic information via their wireless devices."

The alerts not only kept people informed, but also prompted them to use less power to avert rolling blackouts. "The minute those alerts went out, you could see a drop on the grid," Baheti said.

Wireless is just one of many information pipelines California would use in a disaster, along with TV, radio, wired Web access and other media. It is useful for people on the move who happen to have a cell phone or pager at hand. As Baheti said, "That's an incredible way to get information out."
Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer
Platforms & Programs