Louisville center creates disaster response net

The most important element in an emergency scenario is communication, iTRC's Jim Graham says.

Courtesy of the IT Resource Center

Maybe a train derails and terrorism is suspected, or a chemical spill contaminates the air around a town. A prototype network hosted at the University of Louisville can send images of the incidents via streaming video to FBI headquarters in Washington.

The Kentucky school's Information Technology Resource Center is working with local, state and federal agencies to build the network, which can let emergency and government workers share such data in the event of a catastrophe caused by weapons of mass destruction and other disasters, iTRC director Jim Graham said.

The center is working with the state's Office of the New Economy and Office for Security Coordination on the $250,000 homeland security collaboration network.

Usually six to 12 hours after a disaster, local, state and federal officials set up a joint operations center. 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 radio has problems: Information can be intercepted or tapped, and often the police and fire departments are on different 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 network uses streaming video tools from Next-Cast Inc. of Louisville to send live video back from the scene.

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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