Federal and local officials: We've got to talk

State and local governments are still reeling from the aftershocks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the weaknesses it revealed in the communication between levels of government.

County, federal and industry executives convened today at FOSE's Homeland Security theater to talk about how to strengthen communication'and cooperation'among levels of government and industry.

Arlington County, Va., CIO Jack Belcher led the discussion. 'We're all so independent. It turns out, on Sept. 11, Arlington County was responsible for the Pentagon's parking lot. I didn't even know who to call,' he said.

'In Pennsylvania, when Flight 93 went down on Sept. 11, we had to deal with not only local first responders, but all kinds of federal agencies'the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration and others' and their diverse communication systems, said Chris J. D'Ascenzo, director of business development for Lockheed Martin Management and Data Systems of Philadelphia, a unit of Lockheed Martin Corp.

Since the communication failures of that September day, some computer companies have been only too happy to sell the latest technology to local fire, police and emergency medical services departments.

'Fire folks, police, EMS'they've always know about fire hoses and medical equipment, but not necessarily IT,' Belcher said. 'They are being inundated with technology solutions and sometimes being seduced by short-term solutions.'

The assumption many outsiders make about first responders is that they are all the same, Belcher said. 'But when you get down to the bottom of these organizations, you find out that often the fire department and the police don't get along.'

For example, one time Belcher was with a group of fire and police officials arguing about the kind of communication system to put in ambulances. 'Finally I said to them, 'Why don't you just get a rock, tie a note around it and throw it through the ambulance window?' We've always said IT has to be at the table,' Belcher said. 'But it's beyond that now. IT has to be a voice at the table.'

David Forslund, a laboratory fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, said public notification systems needed to be handled better too. In 1993, an outbreak of hantavirus affected about 20 people, Forslund said. But the local television news told viewers that if they had fatigue, fever and muscle aches, they should go to the emergency room. Such a large number of people called the hospital in so short a time that its phone system collapsed, Forslund said.

And cooperation between government agencies needs to be built into systems from the start, Forslund said. LANL is working with New Mexico to create a statewide syndromic surveillance system. 'We asked them, don't you want to check in with Colorado and Texas, your neighboring states before you set this up? They'd say, 'We'll worry about that later.' But for interoperability, you're going to need to talk to your neighbors,' he said.

Forslund also expressed some frustration with the salaries New Mexico pays its IT employees. The state 'won't pay IT people enough money to have them on staff. So the vendor has to come in'they'll pay the vendor anything. But the vendor eventually leaves, and the IT knowledge doesn't stay in the organization. Then they hire a new vendor. It becomes very confusing,' he said.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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