Kentucky center tests disaster response network

Kentucky center tests disaster response network

The Information Technology Resource Center in Louisville, Ky., is working with local, state and federal agencies to build a network for sharing data in the wake of a disaster such as a terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction.

The iTRC is a unit of the University of Louisville's College of Business and Public Administration. The school is working with Kentucky's Office of the New Economy and Office for Security Coordination to develop the $250,000 homeland security collaboration network.

Usually six to 12 hours after a major disaster, local, state and federal officials set up a joint operations center, iTRC director Jim Graham said.

If the event involved nuclear materials, the Energy Department would send officials to the site. If biological weapons were used, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would send representatives.

The most important element in any such scenario is communication, Graham said. The first responders at each level need to communicate quickly and securely, he said.

In the past, the communications tool of choice was radio, Graham said. But it has problems: Information can be intercepted or tapped, and often the police departments and fire departments are on different radio frequencies. Plus, radios don't let officials send video or other images.

The Kentucky iTRC is looking at a way to overcome the interoperability problem. The center is evaluating several applications that translate analog voice signals from radio communications into an IP data stream, using either IP or a software-defined radio.

Software-defined radio is a wireless communication, in which the transmitter modulation is generated by a computer and a receiver uses a computer to recover the signal content.

The iTRC network uses Sidewinder firewalls from Secure Computing Corp. of San Jose, Calif., to secure data traffic. For the homeland security project, the network also links to a laboratory in Roseville, Minn., run by Secure Computing.

The network verifies user identities with Secure Computing's SafeWord Premier Access authentication tools. 'In a normal environment, you would use a password,' Graham said. 'Well, passwords can fall into the wrong hands, people write them on sticky notes attached to their monitors, or people use their kids' names. This is how systems are vulnerable.'

The authentication tool generates random passwords. For example, a user could be assigned a password over a cellular phone equipped with text messaging features, and then use the password to authenticate himself over a Web site, Graham said.

The network uses streaming video tools from Next-Cast Inc. of Louisville to send live video back from the scene.

'Maybe a terrorist has derailed a train, or the wind was blowing in a certain direction,' Graham said. The center could use Next-Cast to transmit those images to FBI headquarters in Washington.

Graham and his team have demonstrated the collaborative network to the FBI, the Secret Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and state emergency management agencies. At each demonstration, the Louisville center received feedback about ways to improve collaboration.

Although the iTRC collaborative project is a demonstration, 'it's not a science project,' Graham said. 'If an emergency occurred, we could actually deploy this.'

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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