DHS donation powers emergency hub

When Laurel wanted to build the new emergency center, Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich's staff pointed city officials to Homeland Security for assistance.

Laurie DeWitt

Before a new emergency operations center was inaugurated earlier this month, the official emergency management facility in Laurel, Md., was a room with a map and a phone in the police department's headquarters.

But through a donation of 15 desktop PCs and software from the Homeland Security Department, Laurel government officials have a new Emergency Operations Center that they hope will become a coordination hub for four counties surrounding Washington.

Maryanne Anthony, Laurel's director of IT and community services, said the center is the first of its kind in the nation with such capabilities.

'We needed something larger that could provide a more regional view of situations,' Anthony said. 'Now we have a room that is equipped with all this functionality, and we even have a backup radio communications system for the police department.'

She said the facility will let Laurel officials and neighboring counties communicate with the federal government and some large corporations through a secure network using the Disaster Management Interoperability Services software.

In developing DMIS, DHS modified the Marine Corps' Consequence Management Interoperability Services Suite. The software also is used on the Disasterhelp.gov site, which is a part of the Disaster Management e-government project that Homeland Security is managing. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has outfitted 14 other state and local governments with the DMIS software, Anthony said.

When Laurel wanted to build the new emergency center, Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich's staff pointed city officials to Homeland Security for assistance.

During the new center's debut, Laurel officials ran a drill simulating a railroad derailment that resulted in a chemical spill. During the 20-minute exercise, which included CSX Corp. of Jacksonville, Fla., state and local emergency responders communicated through the DMIS software.

Anthony said the donated PCs, which have 350-MHz Pentium II processors, connect via Digital Subscriber Line to the city hall LAN that runs the software.

The software provides a real-time, continuous log of activity during an emergency. Officials can pull up detailed maps and overlay them with specific landmarks, waterways or buildings. Anthony said the software also can show evacuation routes and shelters, and can outline the affected area. The maps give a view from 10,000 feet, Anthony said.

The software also has instant messaging capabilities, lets users share documents over the network and forecasts the weather 48 hours in advance.

Anthony said she would like to see a contact management function added to the DMIS software. This would let officials know which fire stations, police cars and other emergency responders were called and when.

Private sector

Remote users will have access to the system over a virtual private network, she said.

'We hope to let more private-sector groups, such as power companies and water commissions, use the system,' Anthony said. 'During an incident, we will invite the affected parties into the system so everyone will be able to communicate. But these businesses will not be given the software before an incident happens.'

Anthony said the city has not applied for federal funds to help pay for the new center but plans to do so once the total cost is determined.

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