Pop-up messages relay alarms at Bureau of Land Management

A loud fire alarm doesn't tell workers everything they need to know in some emergencies.

The Bureau of Land Management has installed an instant-messaging system that sends detailed instructions to every desktop computer in unusual emergency situations.

It can't replace standard fire alarms, said Matthew Stewart, BLM's IT services manager. But it can tell employees, for example, whether to evacuate the building immediately or take cover indoors.

BLM's Washington staff is spread over two buildings, with 350 employees at one Northwest Washington site and another 60 at the Interior Department 10 blocks away. Stewart manages computer systems at both locations.

'If we have a bomb threat, I need to get some type of message out,' he said.

Stewart and other BLM officials started looking for an emergency-message system immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when many federal employees did not know where to evacuate or to report for work later.

The IT staff looked at about 10 products and rejected those whose messages looked too much like standard desktop error messages. Some limited instant messages to 128 characters or had only canned messages without changeable wording for unusual situations.

'You didn't have a lot of control over what you were saying,' Stewart said of some products. Bureau officials wanted to be able to tell employees specifically whether an audible alarm meant, say, a cafeteria grease fire, a bomb threat or a chemical spill.

In the end, he installed a messaging app called e/pop from WiredRed Software Corp. of San Diego. BLM tried a 30-day free download soon after the terrorist attacks and purchased the app by the end of September 2001, said Hemini Patel, principal engineer at Northrop Grumman IT of Herndon, Va., a BLM contractor.

Stewart and other BLM officials drafted eight instant messages for different emergency scenarios. Security officials and floor wardens reviewed the prepared messages for compliance with building evacuation plans.

One scenario is inclement weather that sometimes causes the Office of Personnel Management to dismiss workers in and around Washington in the middle of the day.

Office grapevines can take up to two hours to spread the word, Stewart said, but 'this way everybody's notified at the same time.'

Beeping message

An urgent message from e/pop appears as red text on a plain white background. The visual message will pop up over any running app and will interrupt screen savers, Stewart said. It also will beep to get the attention of people talking on the phone or not looking at their screens.

The application is always running to ensure that employees receive messages at any time their computers are turned on, Patel said.

Workers, for example, could be alerted to lock all corridor doors if a gunman were loose in the building. Unlimited characters are available for messages.

Stewart said he's the only person at BLM headquarters with authority to post emergency messages, though there is a designated alternate when he is on leave. He has set e/pop's privileges to prevent posting of fake emergency messages.

Stewart said he can also quickly amend an e/pop message to reflect unusual conditions. For instance, if a building's usual safe zone is unsafe in a particular situation, he can direct people to an alternate place.

E/pop is a small application, about 6M in size, and doesn't require a separate application server. WiredRed designed it specifically for enterprises, building in encryption, authentication and logging features not found in consumer-oriented messaging clients, company president Allen Drennan said. The application runs under Microsoft Windows 2000.

BLM headquarters is piloting e/pop for other parts of the bureau, Stewart said. His staff has sent the evaluation of messaging products to Interior for other interested agencies.

BLM conducted one drill in which e/pop notified employees to leave the building and go to designated safe zones. Stewart called the drill a 'major success.' But BLM's Washington staff hasn't had a real emergency since e/pop went live. 'Maybe we can hope for a snow day this winter,' Stewart said.

Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above