Videoconferencing paid off Sept. 11

Videoconferencing paid off Sept. 11

FEMA employees and off-site colleagues participate in a videoconference meeting.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's investment in videoconferencing technology paid off in spades after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

In the ensuing rescue efforts, FEMA relied heavily on videoconferencing for coordination among officials. Using a secure, dedicated system, the equipment linked FEMA to the White House and a wide range of federal agencies.

In a statement to the press, Vice President Dick Cheney said the system was so important for coordinating the response that it was one of the reasons he initially chose to remain at the White House, rather than lose the capability.

'We were online and communicating with the White House and other departments within minutes after the second aircraft struck in New York and before the hit in Washington,' said FEMA electronics maintenance manager John Hempe.

In recent days, FEMA has deployed a mobile videoconferencing unit in New York. It is used to relay twice-daily press briefings via satellite.

Founded in 1979, FEMA's mission is to reduce loss of life and property, and to protect the nation's infrastructure from all types of hazards, disasters and emergencies.

The agency initially deployed videoconferencing a couple of years ago to improve communications between headquarters in Washington and the National Hurricane Center in Florida during the summer hurricane season. Officials immediately preferred it to the traditional conference call.

'Being able to see the individuals you are interacting with adds a whole new dimension to meetings,' Hempe said. 'Our meetings are more lively and productive, as well as being far shorter than those conducted via telephone conference calls.'

Hempe said the popularity of the system, the time it saves during emergency conferences, heightened communications and a drop in costs from $30,000 to $5,000 per unit speeded the adoption of videoconferencing in emergency management.

FEMA has equipped each of its 10 regional offices as well as six other locations'the Caribbean Area Office and five mobile emergency response teams'with video systems. The systems consist of a video camera, television set and microphone.

Internally, video links use FEMA's private WAN. Links to external agencies are established using Integrated Services Digital Network lines. Conferences run at speeds of up to 384 Kbps, providing video at a rate of 30 frames per second.

For videoconferencing units, the agency uses the PictureTel 760 from PictureTel Corp. of Andover, Mass., and Polycom ViewStation from PolyCom Inc. of Milpitas, Calif. The systems are portable, easy to set up and weigh as little as 10 pounds.

On the back end, FEMA uses PictureTel Prism and Montage conferencing servers running Microsoft Windows NT. The videoconferencing system is linked to an Oracle 8i database.

Videoconferencing has saved FEMA time and money by slashing its travel expenditures for training, recruitment and meetings.

But the system's greatest contribution has been to safety.

During an emergency, as many as eight regional and mobile sites are connected to FEMA headquarters for daily videoconferences. During Hurricane Debby last year, for example, digital images and satellite shots of the hurricane were broadcast to track the storm's progress. FEMA and state officials as well as weather professionals coordinated closely on the situation, keeping tabs on casualties, wind speed and direction. Fortunately, Debby petered out without touching the U.S. mainland.

'It really is true that a picture is worth a thousand words,' Hempe said. 'Instead of hours explaining the details of hurricanes, their effects and predicted behavior, we can transmit weather models, satellite pictures and agency resource details in a couple of graphics that tell you all you need to know.'

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