On-the-fly systems pass first real test in Senate
- By Jason Miller
- Feb 20, 2004
'Prior to the anthrax attacks, we had standard capabilities, but now we can communicate throughout Congress much more easily,' CIO Greg Hanson says.
Henrik G. de Gyor
Senate Governmental Affairs Committee press secretary Andrea Hofelich grabbed a handful of folders, her cell phone and her BlackBerry before hurrying out of her office in the Russell Senate Office Building.
She had just opened an e-mail that said the deadly poison ricin had been discovered in the Dirksen mailroom of Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
On the Feb. 2 evening, Hofelich thought she had taken everything but later realized she forgot her cell phone charger, leaving her phone's battery less than half-charged. Had this happened in October 2001'when anthrax attacks shut down Congress for nearly a week'Hofelich would have been out of touch after her phone died.
But new portable devices and communications applications let Hofelich and many others in the Senate'from lawmakers to senior staff members'keep performing much of their day-to-day work.
'We kept up with things pretty well,' Hofelich said. 'I wasn't concerned about my cell phone charger because between my BlackBerry and the ability to access my office voice mail from a land line, I knew I could stay in contact.'
Senate leaders committed to using technology to help staff feel more secure and help the senators do what they need to do, Senate CIO Greg Hanson said.
'Since the anthrax attacks, we've made tremendous strides with continuity-of-operation plans, technical support and overall planning,' he said.
That includes efforts within individual offices to provide key staff with notebook PCs and handheld devices such as BlackBerry e-mail clients from Research in Motion Ltd. of Waterloo, Ontario, and broader efforts by the Senate to field a virtual private network, he said.
In the wake of the ricin attack, the Senate's leaders realize that the efforts paid off in letting workers be mobile, flexible and better prepared in the face of a potential disaster, Hansen said.
Nonetheless, it was a trying period for Senate techies. Hanson was so busy spearheading the Senate's IT response to the building closures that he slept about two hours between Monday, Feb. 2, and Wednesday, Feb. 4.
By sending out messages via e-mail and cell phone, doubling the modem and VPN capacity during the wee hours of Feb. 3 and quickly setting up auxiliary offices, Hanson said key Senate activities continued unhindered. As the week wore on, small crews of staff members were able to support members who continued to meet in the Capitol.Anthrax lessons
The success of the communications effort, he said, is attributable to IT upgrades the Senate made after the anthrax attacks.
The Senate's migration from Lotus cc:Mail to Microsoft Exchange eased communications, Hanson said. Because Exchange can run on many handheld devices, senators and senior staff members were able to share messages.
Along with Exchange, the Senate implemented a phone messaging system from Dialogic Corp. of Parsippany, N.J., that can send bulk messages to the cell phones and pagers of lawmakers and staff.
'We have a structure of notification where we can alert a certain group through the e-mail system, as well as over the Internet and the Senate's intranet,' Hanson said. 'Prior to the anthrax attacks, we had standard capabilities, but now we can communicate throughout Congress much more easily.'
Hanson on Tuesday also extended the Senate's LAN as far as he could to set up new offices at remote sites'in offices on loan from other agencies, including the General Accounting Office and Office of Personnel Management. He used extra desktop computers, printers, fax machines and other office equipment stored in a local warehouse.
'We spent most of Tuesday wiring offices, running local cable and flipping switches to transfer phone and fax lines to the members' new offices,' Hanson said.
Mike Thomas, chief of staff for Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), said the Senate was better prepared and delivered information much faster than it had in previous crises.
'During the anthrax attacks, we didn't have BlackBerry devices and had only a few laptops,' Thomas said. 'And during this incident, there always were IT folks available to help with the networking or switching phone lines or whatever we needed.'
Allen's office also was better prepared. Thomas said his staff had developed a continuity-of-operations plan and in early 2002 started replacing desktop PCs with Gateway Pentium III and Compaq Pentium 4 notebooks.
The office also installed a videoconferencing system from Polycom Inc. of Milpitas, Calif., to connect Allen's district office in Richmond with regional offices in Abingdon, Herndon, Richmond and Virginia Beach, Va.
When the Washington offices closed, Thomas said, staff members scattered across Virginia to work out of the regional offices.Quick connections
The employees connected to the Senate's server via dial-up or VPN, and many of the regional offices are equipped with T1 or fractional T1 lines to make connecting quicker, Thomas said.
'For the anthrax attacks, we communicated mainly by phone, and most people worked from home before we sent some to the Richmond district office where we plugged a few desktops no one was using into the network,' Thomas said.
Hanson said the Senate will conduct a formal review to see where improvements can be made in the emergency IT plans.
'From a technology standpoint, we were well prepared, had good tools and the technology we used was robust enough,' he said. 'We need to improve our ability to communicate with each other, especially in getting notifications out more quickly.'
Hanson also said he would like to see more training on how to use the VPN secure identification cards. He said there were a few too many times when staff members forgot how to use the cards or discovered that the battery had died on a card that had not been used in a long time.
Allen's office also intends to conduct a review to see how staff members can improve its continuity-of-operations plan. 'We learned a good bit from having gone through this,' Thomas said. 'Some of the decisions we made on paper about who should go where may have to be re-examined. But I think our technology hardware was adequate.'