COOP toolkit: text messaging, thumb drives, Web mail

REDMOND, Wash.'Communications systems were largely useless when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region, 'but text messaging did work,' said John Lawson, CIO of Tulane University in New Orleans.

Lawson and other officials who were on the ground during Katrina's aftermath told a gathering of public-sector CIOs that because text messaging requires so little bandwidth, and in very short bursts, it became a primary means of communicating during rescue-and-recovery operations.

'Our young folks figured that out for us,' said Joe Castillo, chief of operations for the Coast Guard district serving New Orleans.

The panel discussion was part of a conference held here by Microsoft Corp.

What else actually worked during the Katrina disaster? Castillo said the Coast Guard relied on thumb drives to courier data around the area. The miniature storage devices contain flash memory and typically connect to computers through a USB port. 'I bought a ton of them,' Castillo said.

Agencies on the ground also relied heavily on commercial e-mail services and recommended off-site e-mail systems as part of a continuity of operations plan (COOP). Eric Rasmussen, a director of emergency medicine for the Navy, said his group set up accounts on Yahoo Mail, Google and others in order to share information.

Lawson said he learned to have an off-site e-mail system in place in case of disaster. Tulane was eventually able to find an offsite partner to set up accounts for students and personnel, but the school was unable to populate the system on the fly with all user account information.

In recommending COOP best practices, James Bryan, program manager for IT projects at the Red Cross, said it's important to establish vendor agreements before an agency needs them. The Red Cross had to quickly reach out to the private sector to perform load balancing for all the data traffic it and its users created in the hurricane's aftermath.

'We forged a relationship within 24 hours with an external company, and then things went along smoothly from that point on,' Bryan said. 'If we had a playbook in advance, then we could have made a call [to vendor partners] and said 'OK, it's your turn, go do these things.' '

Rasmussen was pleased with the Groove peer-to-peer collaboration tools his team employed in New Orleans, but they weren't perfect. In order to establish secure collaboration, Groove's communications are encrypted end to end. Therefore, an emergency response official must be invited to a Groove workgroup in order to collaborate. COOP plans should include technologies for workgroup discovery, Rasmussen said.

'The ability to find out who is doing collaborative work ' by having some Web-based discovery capability or some e-mail-based discovery capability would be very useful,' he said. 'A lot of work that was done in a collaborative workspace was not available to anyone else.'

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