D.C. goes to the wall to monitor city

'It's very much akin to fighting a battle. The team with the best intelligence wins.'

'D.C.'s Ned Ingraham

Henrik G. DeGyor

The District of Columbia Emergency Management Agency is used to coping with snowstorms that shut down schools and government operations, or legions of protesters who march for various causes.

But after Sept. 11, 2001, 'the emergency facilities we had were insufficient,' said Ned Ingraham, the senior IT manager. A year later, the agency opened an emergency operations center to handle more serious threats.

The focal point is a room-size display that officials call the knowledge wall. Multiple monitors from Mitsubishi Digital Electronics of Irvine, Calif., display intelligence from 54 rackmounted PCs from Samsung Electronics America of Ridgefield Park, N.J.

The center's seating chart includes representatives of numerous state, local and federal agencies including the FBI, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Marine Corps, Office of Personnel Management, Secret Service and Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

When Peter LaPorte, director of the D.C. agency, first saw the new center, he stretched out his arms and said, 'This is what I call 'Enterprise',' because it looked like something out of a Star Trek movie.

The PCs run Microsoft Windows 2000 and Activu software from Imtech Corp. of Denville, N.J. The wall's three data panels are each 5-feet tall by 12-feet wide and 1,536-pixels high by 4,096-pixels wide, said Paul Noble, Imtech's chief executive officer.

The wall can show 24 50-inch cubes at once from 32 audio sources and 48 video sources, including the Internet, microwave, satellite, and broadcast and cable TV. On a recent day, the wall simultaneously displayed CNN, the Weather Channel, a 3-D geographic information system image of downtown Washington, Microsoft PowerPoint slides, three traffic cameras and a local news channel.

From snow to terror

The citywide GIS uses ArcView from ESRI of Redlands, Calif. It incorporates details down to the correct species of tree on each street, Ingraham said.

Visitors can select from a small map of the wall one particular square to work on at a PC, choosing the correct video source from a drop-down menu. The squares can be dragged as large or as small as desired.

'It's extraordinarily easy to use,' Ingraham said. 'The night we installed it, folks who had no training were working with it.'

The first test of the new center came in September 2002 when about 2,000 protesters demonstrated against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

'There were some complaints, but nowhere near the uproar or violence there had been in years past,' Ingraham said. He credited better information for fewer law enforcement errors.

'Back when the center dealt with snowstorms and floods, there wasn't the urgency and the life-threatening nature of things we go through today,' he said. 'It's very much akin to fighting a battle. The team with the best intelligence wins.'

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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