GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY/Coming to the rescue
In May 2003, medical, police, fire and other first responders in Seattle staged a simulated radioactive dirty bomb explosion to test their emergency preparedness. In some ways the experiment was encouraging: much of the emergency response was fast and fairly well coordinated. But as experts studied the results, they found problems.
For example, emergency responders rushed to the scene of the dirty bomb explosion so quickly that they did not get a warning that there was a large area of radioactivity that was potentially lethal. Had the bomb been real, more than 30 emergency workers would have suffered serious radiation exposure.
Although emergency response agencies have improved since Sept. 11, 2001, problems remain. The difficulties fall into three general categories: speed of emergency information, the detail and quality of that information, and the interoperability of emergency communications systems. Fortunately, technologies are advancing to address those issues.
When a fire, flood, industrial accident or terrorist attack happens, the first priority is to alert emergency personnel. Traditionally, that has been done through sirens, phone lists, pagers, emergency radios or other methods. But what if someone does not hear the siren, cannot answer the phone or is not near the radio?
Some cities and counties are beginning to use new software-based emergency notification systems that store contact information for every emergency responder and cycle through a variety of channels until the responders are notified. For example, the system might start with a cell phone, move to a home phone, then it might send an instant message to a computer, depending on the responders’ preferences. The computerized systems can contact many people almost simultaneously.
Just as important as speedy notification is the detail and quality of the information any system provides to emergency responders. In the case of the dirty bomb test in Seattle, it was vital for responders to know that the device was radioactive and that they should have stayed away at a certain distance. Other responders needed to know that they should don radiation suits. Hospitals needed to know that the incoming victims were more likely to have radiation injuries than explosion injuries. Eventually, all of that information was conveyed to responders, but it would have made a significant difference if those details were provided earlier.
Finally, to combat interoperability problems, software systems are being developed (and in some cases are already being used) that act as translators, allowing incompatible communications devices to talk to each other without hardware changes. While no solution will provide 100 percent compatibility, new emergency notification systems can bring a high degree of interoperability to current devices, which can substantially reduce spending for new equipment.
Those three critical components must be available to improve emergency response notification. Currently, the Pennsylvania Region 13 Counter-terrorism Task Force, which includes 13 counties and Pittsburgh, is implementing a system that includes those components and could serve as a national template for fast, efficient and cost-effective emergency response communications.
The author is CEO for Pittsburgh-based Evoxis.