'We've got to talk' at all levels, county CIO says

State and local governments are still reeling from the aftershocks of Sept. 11, 2001, which spotlighted many weaknesses in intergovernmental communications.

County, federal and industry executives convened this month at FOSE's Homeland Security Theater to talk about how to strengthen cooperation across levels of government and industry.

Arlington County, Va., CIO Jack Belcher said: 'We're all so independent. It turned out on Sept. 11 that Arlington County was responsible for the Pentagon's parking lot. I didn't even know who to call.'

Many IT companies are now promoting the latest technology to local fire, police and emergency medical services.

'Fire folks, police, EMS'they've always known about fire hoses and medical equipment, but not necessarily IT,' Belcher said.

Many outsiders assume first responders are seamlessly connected, Belcher said, 'but when you get down to the bottom of these organizations, you find out that often the fire department and the police don't get along.'

For example, Belcher said he sat with a group of fire and police officials who were arguing about the kind of communication system to put in ambulances. 'I said, 'Why don't you just get a rock, tie a note around it and throw it through the ambulance window?' '

Tell the public

David Forslund, a laboratory fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, said public notification systems need improvement, too.

In 1993, a hantavirus outbreak affected about 20 local residents, Forslund said. TV news reports told viewers that if they had fatigue, fever and muscle aches, they should go to an emergency room. So many people called hospitals in so short a time that the phone system collapsed, Forslund said.

The Los Alamos lab is now working with New Mexico on a statewide syndromic surveillance system, he said. 'We asked them, don't you want to check in with Colorado and Texas, your neighboring states, before you set this up?' he said. 'They'd say, 'We'll worry about that later.' But for interoperability, you're going to need to talk to your neighbors.'

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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