Panel: Sniper hunt IT could be model for DHS

The sniper attacks in the Washington area last October were an object lesson for the Homeland Security Department in the value of IT interoperability.

That's what the homeland security task force of the Government Electronics and IT Association of Arlington, Va., concluded in a recent report about the three-week-long sniper manhunt.

DHS is 'building an architecture without thinking holistically about interoperability,' said Kari Garell, vice president of corporate business development for MTC Technologies Inc. of Dayton, Ohio. Garell led the 13-member task force that studied collaboration by federal, state and local public-safety officials during the sniper crisis.

DHS is adopting technologies from its component agencies, but instead it should first assess its collaboration needs and then compatible technologies, Garell said.

'Technology should be the enabler, not the driver,' she said.

Montgomery County, Md., provided several kinds of IT support to the interagency investigators, Garell said. BlackBerry personal digital assistants from Research in Motion Ltd. of Waterloo, Ontario, kept senior officials informed. The county also supplied Internet-connected PCs with access to geographic information systems and law enforcement databases.

The GEIA task force found 'a well-defined and executed relationship between the available tools and law enforcement officers' in the sniper case. This happened in large part because Montgomery County police shared their stockpile of brand-new wireless phones and digital radios with officials from other jurisdictions.

Merging data

At the time, a Montgomery County official called the use of digital radio 'interoperability by the seat of our pants'.

But the GEIA report gave low marks to the FBI's Rapid Start case management tool, which was unable to merge data gathered by different agencies, Garell said.

The GEIA panel also recommended that DHS provide 'rapid access to a working, integrated technology infrastructure' and include IT and logistics in disaster drills.The report also called for establishing a 'virtual command post model' for secure interagency communications.

GEIA's homeland security task force included representatives of Booz Allen Hamilton of McLean, Va., Computer Sciences Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp. and several other companies. The task force examined news reports and interviewed Montgomery County officials and IT companies that worked with the investigators. GEIA presented its findings to Homeland Security CIO Steve Cooper. The report is available online at www.geia.org.

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