Fighting fire with data

Coordinated systems and broadband links help DHS, Calif. agencies provide relief<@VM>Sidebar | Despite one glitch, Calif. systems meet demands for information<@VM>Sidebar | Online rental housing app helps fire victims relocate

Federal, state and local officials who grappled with the recent Southern California wildfires gained crucial help from a web of prepositioned information technology assets that stood ready to support firefighters and ease the plight of disaster victims.

The agencies' fire response, which drew continuously on a rich IT environment, stood in dramatic contrast to the bungling and finger-pointing that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Technology upgrades deployed since the hurricane disaster helped avoid that calamity's IT meltdown and interoperability collapse.

Southern California agencies and their federal counterparts relied on command-and-control centers that communicated largely via broadband links, moving vast quantities of data, including countless remote imagery files from orbiting satellites and other platforms to on-site fire fighting commanders, among other tasks.

The Homeland Security Department worked smoothly with state and local agencies to provide real-time data on the development of fires. As the ashes of the quenched fires cooled, state agencies led the way in prompt use of IT in the transition to recovery and rebuilding work.

Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency, tagged as the culprit in repeated and egregious IT failures stemming from the hurricanes two years ago, started its operations against the wildfires by providing a river of data from several sources.
NASA publicized its collection of data via a modified Predator unmanned aerial vehicle to provide thermal images of fires.

But technology officials at the Riverside central command post run by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) cited FEMA's contribution of data from less public and somewhat more expensive platforms, including high-flying U-2 reconnaissance aircraft.

In addition, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency cooperated with the Interior Department's Geological Survey to provide geospatial data that flowed to FEMA and to the Riverside command center. NGA operates a global halo of low-orbit satellites for national security purposes that can produce a rich harvest of sophisticated geospatial data.

'We provide the data to users via password-protected Web sites,' said Capt. Mike Wilson of the Riverside command center's geospatial office.

The geographic information systems data aided the smaller command centers operated by local government agencies and the temporary headquarters established by Cal Fire to combat each fire. It also helped recovery organizations, Wilson said.

'The recovery agencies will be using the imagery from the aircraft and satellites to carry out damage assessment and evaluate the effects of the fires on the watershed, the soil and other environmental factors,' Wilson said.

Brian Collins, GIS specialist at Cal Fire's strategic planning office, described a new structure for geospatial-data distribution.

'This is the first time that FEMA has been centralizing the data from several sources and pushing it down for use by a major local command center,' Collins said. 'Previously, it was a top-down organization structure.'

The joint FEMA-Cal Fire GIS operation relies on Google Maps to orchestrate the data it collects. Some of the information, including full-motion video provided by fixed-wing aircraft, flows into the system's network and servers via direct, continuous links. Other photographs arrive on CDs or online, Collins said.

The months and years of preparation for fire season, punctuated by annual real-life fire seasons, drove the growth of an elaborate state and local fire technology infrastructure.

As the fires' intensity increased, some glitches in the IT web arose. Local press reports, supported by official statements, indicated that officials had not been briefed on how to use the priority feature of their cell phones to punch calls through swamped cell sites. That priority-calling feature is provided and maintained via the National Communications System, a decades-old oversight node for the telecommunications system that now reports to DHS' assistant secretary for cybersecurity and communications.

Lifting spirits

Nonetheless, the overall impression that public officials were monitoring and controlling efforts with the help of advanced technology apparently buoyed public morale.

Even as the San Diego Chargers' Qualcomm Stadium filled with displaced Californians who immediately started using a quickly installed link to online recovery information, jovial clowns on stilts entertained the well-fed and largely cheerful crowd, according to various reports.

The proactive use of technology continued during the disaster's recovery phase.

The state consumer protection agency promptly added a telephone call center and online information page at www.rebuildyourlife.ca.gov to mobilize the public's recovery efforts. The site's 'Rebuild Your Life' motto backed up its cheerleading tone with a comprehensive catalog of useful resources, ranging from grant application information to anti-fraud advice.

Federal officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, said the government's response to the wildfires drew comparisons to FEMA's ghastly handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster two years ago. Chertoff and FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison cited the contribution of technology as part of an array of improvements FEMA has adopted to address the disaster. In one TV interview, Chertoff emphasized that two years' planning and preparation since the Katrina catastrophe have been put in play to cope with the fires.

FEMA started its Southern California operations by publicizing the federal agency responses that help ease the suffering of those displaced by the disaster, reportedly numbering as many as 1 million people.

FEMA's prepositioned resources for major disasters typically include mobile offices built from modified recreational vehicles.

The agency's RV offices sport computers and telecommunications links so people who have lost assets such as homes or businesses can apply for federal grants or Small Business Administration loans.Overwhelming public demand for online information about the California wildfires temporarily crashed the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's Incident Web site, but the state and its service provider managed to meet the demand within hours.

Ron Ralph, chief information officer at Cal Fire, said in a telephone interview that the increase in traffic to the agency's Web site had overwhelmed the bandwidth allocated for it. 'We were bursting up to 12 to 14 megabits of traffic,' he said.

Ralph asked AT&T about getting additional bandwidth. 'AT&T doubled our bandwidth within 12 hours,' he said. 'I thought that was pretty impressive.'

The state agency's information technology shop benefited from a quirk in an ongoing upgrade project that speeded the bandwidth increase, Ralph said. 'We are in a transitional state. We had 22 megabits [of unused bandwidth] on the sideline that AT&T provisioned.'

Ralph said his operation relies on an Oracle database management system on the back end and Citrix for application delivery. The system connects with some 4,500 users via a client/server network that uses a virtual private network.

Cal Fire's resources include a suite of applications referred to as a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system, which processes 911 calls and forwards them to the appropriate agency staff members. 'The CAD system is fully redundant and fielded at 22 locations around the state,' Ralph said.

When fire incidents grow into large problems, Cal Fire switches to its Resource Ordering System link.

ROS is a nationwide federal system with hardware based in Kansas City, Mo. Cal Fire uses redundant communications paths to connect with ROS, which in turn is fully interoperable with the CAD suite, Ralph said.

During large fires, Cal Fire relies on ROS to keep track of the various assets, such as bulldozers, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, deployed to fight the conflagrations.

ROS also handles the logistics for keeping firefighters supplied with consumable items, such as food and drinking water, in addition to the water and chemicals they spray or drop on fires.
Californians displaced by destructive wildfires can find new quarters faster with the help of an online housing locater built by the Housing and Urban Development Department following the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

The National Housing Locator is a searchable online clearinghouse of rental housing nationwide, the department said. The locator combines vacant sales and rental housing data from federal housing resources, as well as three widely used commercial apartment data services. Currently, there are more than 15,000 units available in the Southern California, Nevada and Arizona areas, HUD said.

Last week, HUD field office staffers were working at housing assistance points at some of the shelters where displaced resident camped out. The department's disaster recovery teams worked in selected shelters to help fire evacuees find available rental accommodations much more quickly via the online service, HUD said.

The data service consolidates housing information from several sources, including SocialServ.Com, Apartments.Com, HomeSales.Gov, Rentlinx.Com and other sites, a HUD statement said.

Citizant, the vendor that created the housing locator, used a Web 2.0 approach and rapid application development to provide the first NHL system for less than $1 million, the company said.

"The initial development and deployment was within 45 days for the first release," a Citizant spokesperson said in response to e-mail questions. "We started developing NHL in December 2006 and launched the first release before the end of January 2007."

The department has gradually upgraded the locator since then. It added a geospatial-search capability in March and in June added case management and customer service modules to track and manage housing aid and other emergency assistance, such as the Agriculture Department's Food Stamp program.

Last month Citizant rolled out an additional release that included all planned features, the company said.

' Mary Mosquera contributed to this story.

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