Pa. counties seek one voice in crisis

A consortium of emergency workers is testing a Java software tool to save precious minutes in emergencies.

Officials in Pennsylvania's Southwest Emergency Response Group Region 13 will deploy Prodigent for Emergency Management, a voice communications system from Evoxis Inc. of Pittsburgh. The regional counterterrorism task force represents Pittsburgh and 13 neighboring counties.

One of the most difficult tasks in emergency management is getting information to emergency responders quickly, said Robert Full, chief of the Emergency Services Department of Allegheny County and chairman of the task force.

'It's always been a very time-consuming, labor-intensive process,' he said. Not long ago, emergency management groups used phone trees. If the department wanted to notify 40 people about an emergency, somebody would have to call 40 individual numbers and leave 40 messages.

Prodigent, developed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, lets one person deliver a voice message to 1,000 recipients with one call, said Mohan Ramani, CEO of Evoxis.

For example, if the Pennsylvania Health Department detected a bioterrorism attack, one person could dial Prodigent and give instructions about symptoms and treatment to emergency departments in the region's 65 hospitals.

Last month the region sent out 70 test notifications by pager, e-mail and cell phone. The department defined how each person wanted to be contacted.

Prodigent is interactive; people can reply to the instructions.

When an emergency worker gets an alert on his cell phone, Prodigent will prompt him to press 1 to acknowledge receipt, press 2 if he is able to respond to the emergency, and enter the estimated number of minutes until he can get to the scene.

The system can be programmed for several communication channels per recipient. If a person doesn't answer a pager, within a minute it will dial a cell phone, then a home phone, and then send a text message or e-mail. It will keep trying until it reaches the person.

Full estimated the system will be running in all Region 13 emergency facilities by June 1.

Organizations can install Prodigent in three ways:
  • As a service hosted by Evoxis in its secure data center

  • As software an organization buys and installs in its own facility

  • As a user-hosted hybrid system with Evoxis providing backup and overflow support.

Allegheny chose the hybrid installation, Full said. Although it now is being used for emergency workers only, regional officials plan to use Prodigent to communicate with citizens by next year. After a hazardous-waste spill, for example, emergency workers could use Prodigent to instruct residents to stay in their homes or evacuate.

Prodigent for Emergency Management is written in Java and uses Oracle components, Ramani said. It runs on an assortment of platforms including Sun Solaris, Linux, open-source JBoss and WebLogic Server from BEA Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif.

The Prodigent digitized voice can conform to regional pronunciations, Ramani said. It also has customized intonation contours, Ramani said, pronouncing 'to' with 10 different intonations, depending on context and adjacent words.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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