Re-Inventing The Public Safety Infrastructure
One component of the U.S. military success in Iraq has been information superiority, but here at home, “emergency response systems are still using 19th century technology,” says Charles Jennings, founder, chairman and CEO of the Portland-based Regional Alliances for Infrastructure and Network Security (RAINS).
Nineteenth century? “Yes,” continues Jennings. “Voice telephones were invented in the 19th century. Most emergency communications systems in America today are phone trees. I’m not saying phones should go away, but we need to apply advances in information technology to emergency communications.”
Jennings believes he has a solution to the problem in RAINS, a not-for-profit public-private partnership founded to accelerate the development and deployment of technology in support of Homeland security. “RAINS is about building information technologies for public safety applications,” Jennings explains. “What makes us unique is the membership support and guidance of 60 private companies, five research universities, and numerous public sector partners including first responders and public agencies.”
The composition of RAINS, contends Jennings, enables the organization to develop product concepts in conjunction with its public agency members who will eventually use them. At the same time, research universities provide concepts that use different technologies to solve specific problems. In addition, RAINS’ private members can make wide-ranging technical contributions to the creation of crisis and emergency information products.
An example of how the approach to product development works is the organization’s first product: RAINS-net, a communications platform designed to share sensitive information such as 911 alerts.
Four advanced technology companies, the Oregon University System, the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department, and a number of 911 and emergency operations centers contributed to the creation of RAINS-net.
Jennings characterizes RAINS-net as a “digital dashboard” suite of software products that replaces telephone dispatch with Internet dispatch and resides inside the desktop computers of everyone connected to the system.
One of the first customers, the Portland 911 Center, uses the system to connect to approximately 40 public and private organizations, including the police department, fire department, area hospitals, public schools, hotels and banks. Licensing fees for the service are about $10,000.
At a licensed site, each computer equipped with a RAINS-net digital dashboard provides password access to authorized users. The RAINS-net suite features a menu of information-sharing applications including a variety of public safety tools. Authorized users may also set RAINS-net connections to cell phones, PDAs and pagers.
Once plugged into the system, users receive public safety alerts, advisories and training information over the Internet from other computers on the system.
What’s the difference between e-mail and RAINS-net? According to Jennings, RAINS-net is not an e-mail system.
While e-mail has become ubiquitous in modern Internet life, it is only one of numerous modes of Internet communication. RAINS-net uses an entirely different technical protocol to communicate with computers on its network. The differences make RAINS-net less susceptible to security breaches, according to Jennings.
What does RAINS-net do? Suppose Portland 911 receives a call about a jack-knifed chlorine truck a half mile downwind from a high school connected to the network. The 911 center would issue alerts to anyone on the system in the vicinity of the wreck. At the high school, a siren would erupt from the principal’s computer. He would authenticate himself and check in with RAINS-net on his computer. There he would receive the same message the police have received, describing the incident and rating its severity. The message would include response guidelines telling the principals what steps to take. The communication may also include an audio message from the 911 operator.
Finally, RAINS-net information is targeted. Network members outside the affected area would not receive an alert.
RAINS-net is RAINS’ first product. According to Jennings, the group is currently working on a second product that will automate the certification of driver’s licenses for the police airports, immigration and other identity authentication operations.
Other projects being considered include an automated triage system designed to set priorities for 911 calls and a system that would link local emergency centers with the Department of Homeland Security.