Disaster software standards may get muscle from DHS

DHS wants to ensure that standards come 'directly from the people who use the standards.'

'Program manager Chip Hines

The Homeland Security Department could supercharge emergency management software standards by requiring the department's grantees to purchase compliant equipment.

The Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate'also known as FEMA, its acronym from when it was the Federal Emergency Management Agency'is sponsoring the development of emergency management software standards via its Disaster Management e-government initiative.

Chip Hines, program manager for the initiative, said FEMA is considering mandating these data interoperability standards for first responders and other disaster management organizations that receive department grants.

'We probably would like to see grant language that would say that if you are going to buy software that does incident management, it should be compatible with the following standards,' Hines said during the recent FOSE trade show.

FEMA is the executive sponsor of incident management software standards being developed with vendors as well as state and local officials via the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, a not-for-profit consortium in Billerica, Mass.

The committee is formulating a standard which involves specifying data definitions for emergency response tools such as fire trucks and supplies, and for workers such as physicians, hazmat specialists and police.

The committee plans to broaden its work into the field of geographic information systems, members said, partly by cooperating with DHS' Metadata Center of Excellence and the headquarters CIO office's GIS project.

Software vendors, as well as state and local emergency response agencies, likely would welcome a move by DHS to write the standards into its grant requirements, according to participants in the process.

Tom Merkle, standards manager for the Capital Wireless Integrated Network, works on the OASIS committee on behalf of CapWin, an organization sponsored by federal, state and local agencies in the Washington area.

Becoming mandatory

Merkle said he supports writing the standards requirements into DHS grants, which would go a long way toward making them mandatory.

'I agree with [Chip Hines] 100 percent,' Merkle said. 'The first big thing we have to do is to make sure that the standards are mature and [not proprietary], so DHS could require grantees to buy equipment that meets the standards, which in turn would foster better interoperability.'

Hines said his agency is working to ensure that decisions on the standards come 'directly from the people who use the standards at the state and local level.'

FEMA also is working through OASIS to develop the Emergency Data Exchange Language, which will provide a data-sharing methodology for creating a national database of incident reports, according to DHS. EDXL should be compatible with existing and planned networks at all government levels.

EDXL developers are coordinating their work with the Global Justice XML Data Model, a large data dictionary sponsored by the Justice Department, as well as with emergency data software standards developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

FEMA promotes use of software standards through its online toolset for emergency response organizations. About 1,200 organizations in government and the private sector have joined the FEMA toolset project.

Vendors and emergency management associations agreed that developing standards this way will not only drive interoperability, but also lay out a road map for technology.

'It is nice having a clear standard to work to. Otherwise [the vendor] is shooting in the dark,' said Elysa Jones, chairwoman of the OASIS committee and engineering manager for Warning Systems Inc. of Huntsville, Ala.

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