On July 4, 2007, while hundreds of thousands of people were enjoying the Independence Day festivities and awaiting the evening's legendary fireworks shows in and around Washington D.C., Mother Nature had a different kind of fireworks show planned.
Weather forecasters had been watching a particularly severe line of thunderstorms taking aim on the National Mall. Oddly, this is the exact scenario for which emergency management coordinators had planned -- severe weather with hundreds of thousands at an outdoor venue.
Federal buildings and businesses, such as hotels and restaurants, in the immediate area were alerted to "open their doors" so the crowds could seek shelter. Park police used sound systems to direct a very calm and informed throng into surrounding buildings. After the storms passed, the "all clear" signal was given and festivities resumed.
A more demanding public
Since 9/11 there has been a surge in the public's demand for information from its officials. Basically, everyone wants to know what public safety officials know immediately, regardless of the nature and severity of a situation.
From 1963 to 1997 the Emergency Broadcast System was put in place to warn against nuclear attacks during the height of the Cold War. Its purpose was to allow the president to address the nation via radio and television in the event of a national emergency. In 1997 it was replaced by the Emergency Alert System (EAS) for the same purpose, now with National Weather Service alerts added. Amber Alerts also utilize the EAS tones to alert the public over traditional broadcast media. The system has been activated tens of thousands of times since its inception, with more than 98 percent of all activations being weather related, however never for a national emergency.
When the EAS was not activated on 9/11 -- before, during or after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon -- many questions were raised and finger-pointing began. In the nation's one true emergency, where millions of people were in harm's way, the EAS was silent. The public had been relying on a system that was simply not able to perform under widespread disaster situations as had been promised.
In the years immediately following 9/11, punctuated by the 2005 hurricane season, it became apparent that Americans no longer relied on radio and television broadcasts to gather information. In fact, radio listeners and television viewers are dramatically declining, choosing instead personal audio devices (iPods, MP3 players), the Internet, cell phones and PDAs.
Compounding the complexity of reaching a significant number of people in a given area is the fact that they might not have any electronic device at all, or be able to hear it "ring" if there is a large amount of background noise.
Regional warning system
Nowhere else in the United States are there so many agencies -- federal, state and local -- concentrated into a relatively small geographic area as in the National Capital Region (NCR). Further complicating command issues are the multiple agencies responsible for separate areas within municipal jurisdictions. For example, the Pentagon (Pentagon Police Department), physically located in Arlington, Virginia, is not the responsibility of the Arlington County Police Department, nor is Arlington National Cemetery (U.S. Park Police).
Coordinating all the agencies -- approximately 230, including those within the District of Columbia itself and those from suburban Virginia and Maryland -- has taken carefully coordinated plans, drills, spending, sharing and implementation to achieve a cohesive inter-agency sharing platform, as well as an effective public warning system. The NCR utilizes the Roam Secure Information Exchange (RSIX) to exchange information and the Roam Secure Alert Network (RSAN) to alert citizens of critical information.
RSIX is the first national exchange for emergency information where customers can share both public and private emergency information securely, reliably and in real time. RSAN is an emergency communication system used by governments, emergency management agencies and first responders to send emergency alerts, notifications and updates to private citizens' cell phones, pagers, Blackberrys, PDAs and/or e-mail accounts. This system began alerting capital district residents in 2002. Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant funding in the amount of $3 million initiated the project, which has now been extended to Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax, Virginia, and other densely populated suburban areas surrounding the district.
With RSIX, RSAN systems across the country and other third party information sources can share emergency information anywhere, anytime. Roam Secure, located in Arlington, Virginia, allows subscribers to choose the types of alerts they want to receive as well as the time of day alerts are delivered and on which devices.
Ned Ingraham, vice president of homeland security services at Roam Secure, says there are approximately 100,000 registered subscribers in the NCR and efforts are underway to increase visibility.
"When a municipality becomes part of RSAN, they use public service announcements, paid advertising and a variety of print and outdoor signage to let people know where to sign up," he says. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funding has paid for publicizing RSAN to the communities.
Roam Secure's alerting services have the capability to be used internally among all public safety sectors and then to provide information to the public either in a small area (such as a hazmat incident) or major occurrence (tornado activity or terrorist threat).
Roam Secure understands the goal of moving pertinent information quickly without flooding the network with duplicate and irrelevant messages.
"We are constantly monitoring the frequency and quality of messages being delivered," Ingraham emphasizes. "We look to see that messages are delivered in a timely manner and that they are relevant to the area and incident. We don't want the public receiving more warnings than necessary, because we want them to pay attention to the ones that can impact their lives."
According to Ingraham, the more entities using the communications platform, the more effective it becomes. Several undisclosed, high-level government entities, departments of health and local businesses are part of RSAN in the district area.
The system also is deployed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; New Orleans, Louisiana; Orange County, Florida; the San Francisco Bay Area in California, as well as on university campuses.
"In response to the unfortunate incident at Virginia Tech, campus officials have either acted on previous plans to purchase a campus-wide alerting system, or have recently contacted us for information and testing," says Ingraham.
The University of Maryland recently installed a $54,000 Roam Secure alerting system for its 35,000 students, staff and alumni.
"When municipal law enforcement can easily communicate with campus police, it allows faster, more targeted response and community notification," notes Ingraham.
Municipalities can choose to buy the system outright and host it on their own servers, or use a shared hosting system whereby Roam Secure also hosts, providing backup servers and redundancy.
Over the river
Also on July 4, 2007, across the Potomac River in Arlington, just a few miles from the National Mall, another group of people were assembled at the Iwo Jima Memorial. As the same line of storms threatened, Arlington police deployed WAVES (Wireless Audio Visual Emergency System), a new outdoor warning system that had just been installed.
"The WAVES mass notification system (MNS) effectively integrates multiple communication technologies into one solution," says Dr. Alan Avidan, director of marketing and founder of MadahCom Inc., a division of Cooper Wheelock, located in Sarasota, Florida.
The message, which simply states the situation (severe thunderstorms approaching, seek shelter in buildings, not under trees), was repeated twice in English and once in Spanish. WAVES allows for clear human voice instructions to be transmitted within buildings and outdoor venues. The messages are preceded by alert tones similar to the EAS tones.
DHS recently issued a certification for the WAVES MNS as an "approved product for homeland security" under the Support Anti-Terrorism by Fostering Effective Technologies Act of 2002 (SAFETY Act). This act provides legal liability protection for MadahCom and its customers of WAVES. Under the SAFETY Act, WAVES is the only certified and approved product for mass notification.
Arlington County's Office of Emergency Management (OEM), in partnership with the City of Alexandria's OEM, was selected under a federal grant from DHS to manage the pilot test of WAVES. The federally funded $400,000 pilot program was authorized by the Emergency Preparedness Council of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
"As DHS approved Arlington County and the City of Alexandria system, we provided outdoor voice alerting as well as indoor in key buildings," explains Avidan. "We can target each area or building separately. To reach people in areas not yet covered by WAVES, we are integrating with Roam Secure's Arlington Alert System [powered by RSAN] to reach people with cell phones, SMS and e-mail throughout the NCR."
Robert Griffin, director of Arlington's OEM, which is responsible for the county's strategic emergency priorities, says the system worked as planned on the Fourth of July.
"There were about 700 to 800 people at the Iwo Jima Memorial when we got the alert from our weather forecasters," describes Griffin. "We had deployed a WAVES mobile unit to the area, and we were able to get everyone out of the path of the storms within a few minutes," he says.
Griffin credits the quick response to WAVES and to Arlington's other first responder agencies. "All our first responders fully embrace our warning systems and realize that effective, timely notification clearly saves lives," he says.
Arlington Chief of Police Doug Scott agrees, noting, "We were the first to use Roam Secure's alert network, and it was very quickly accepted by all our first responders. We understand how to use it to its full capability."
Scott says that Arlington's close proximity to the district, all the leased government space in Crystal City, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and several national monuments made this the perfect testing location for RSAN and WAVES.
"We also have about 12,000 hotel rooms which run at about 90 percent occupancy most of the time in the Arlington and Rosslyn areas," he says. "It is extremely important to have systems in place to alert our guests as well as residents."
According to Griffin, Arlington also received about $2 million of a UASI grant to upgrade the county's radio system and about $700,000 in pass-through funding to create an AM radio station (1700 AM) and watch desk for public notification.
Future communications projects
On the horizon, within the next few months, Earthlink will provide Arlington with a subscriber Wi-Fi system covering the county. County emergency managers will have the ability to interrupt a user's session with emergency information any time it's necessary.
Also in the short-term plans for Arlington is a new 911 emergency operations center incorporating the new technology and expanding interoperability capabilities. The center will utilize GIS and AVL systems integrated with its Tiburon platform. This, in addition to a mobile command unit also purchased with UASI funds, assures Arlington residents are informed about dangerous situations.
Griffin says, "We're not stopping until we have the capability to reach everyone everywhere, but the citizens who demanded this level of alert notification need to take some responsibility. Sign up!"
In a region where hundreds of agencies converge to do business, tourists flock to national monuments and millions of people live and work, it seems public safety officials have answered the wake up call to adequately inform the public of impending harm.
Capital district funding
According to Jo'Ellen Gray Countee, public information officer for the District of Columbia Emergency Management Agency (DCEMA), the National Capital Region (NCR) receives funds as a region. These funds are administered by the DCEMA on behalf of the region. Spending priorities are determined by the region in keeping with the NCR's strategic plan and priorities identified by the Department of Homeland Security.
For instance, during 2005 the region conducted a public education campaign funded by $4.5 million in Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) funds. This was a region-wide campaign that included research, advertising, training/community outreach and public relations.
Another example is the purchase and installation of WebEOC in emergency operations centers (EOCs) at NCR jurisdictions. WebEOC is a Web-based application that enables emergency managers and first responders to track an emergency event and all related information (resource availability and deployment, real-time updates, weather, affected and surrounding infrastructure, etc.).
"We have direct hotlines to major utilities," Countee continues. "They also are part of a regional telephone-based warning system called the Washington Metropolitan Area Warning System (WAWAS), which links more than 140 EOCs from federal and local government agencies and utilities, who also use RSAN (Roam Secure Alert Network) and WebEOC."
The NCR received $46.3 million in UASI funds in fiscal year 2006 and $61.6 million in fiscal year 2007.
Linda Spagnoli is a well-known law enforcement advocate in the areas of communication, child safety, officer safety and sex offender tracking. Her focus is on interagency data sharing, emergency communications and media relations. She began her career assisting school resource officers install the D.A.R.E. program in Long Island, New York, schools. Spagnoli still maintains her position as Director of Communications for Code Amber, the largest Internet distribution for Amber Alerts.