Bases go on alert

System makes information dissemination easier, quicker

Last month a child wandered away from his parents while they were on the grounds of Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Since the base covers more than 11,000 acres'much of it inhospitable, and that number doesn't count the thousands of acres of dry lake beds'conducting a search would have been daunting to say the least. But Air Force officials found the boy in just a few hours, with the help of the base's version of the Amber Alert, called the Networked Alerting System. Officials sent out a message to all the desktop and notebook computers tied into the Edwards AFB servers.

'We were able to get the kid before he got scared,' said John Haire, a public affairs spokesman at the base. 'This enabled everybody to get the news quicker, and contributed to finding him.'

The NAS has only been in place since September, Haire said, and had been used in one exercise since its installation. But finding the missing child demonstrates that such a system has day-to-day applicability far beyond the need to plan for basewide emergencies.

Many uses for NAS

Beyond Amber-like alerts, there are all kinds of reasons the services might need to issue warnings, whether on individual bases, across a region or throughout all the military. It could be a terrorist attack'and the nature and location of the attack could require detailed instructions to several different audiences. It could be a natural disaster, from earthquakes in California to storms and tornadoes in the Midwest, to hurricanes along the Atlantic seaboard. It could be a manmade disaster, such as a chemical spill or a train wreck.

In all of these cases, the military needs the ability to send very specific instructions to very targeted audiences, something for which an alert system using the Internet and existing networks are ideally suited.

The Pentagon has not issued any task orders for a specific product to provide this kind of networked alerting capability; instead, each service has the latitude to select the best approach for its own organizational structures.

Sometimes, though, an application may be so clean and straightforward in its implementation that it becomes a de facto standard.

This appears to be taking place with IWSAlerts, the installation warning system software from AtHoc Inc. of Burlingame, Calif.

Since the fall of 2005, two Air Force commands'the Air Education and Training Command and the Air Force Materiel Command'installed IWSAlert at several of their bases, and Pacific Command has installed it at Yokota Air Base in Japan.

In September, the Navy awarded a contract to AtHoc to provide the alerting software to one-quarter of its 16 regions around the world. The software has been deployed at one Army base, and others are considering it for their alerting systems, AtHoc officials said.

To computer users, the alerts simply appear as pop-ups on their computer screens, sent out over unclassified networks. The flexibility that each service desires is behind the scenes, in how the services carry out the software installations.

In the Air Force, major commands make the decision whether to buy the software, and each command implements it as they see fit, depending on budgeting and the project priorities at the bases. Each base's system is, for now, standalone.

The Navy decided to implement a regional approach, in this case rolling out IWSAlert in four domestic regions'northwest, southwest, southeast and Mid-Atlantic'and controlling the issuance of alerts through regional operations centers.

Under congressional directives, lawmakers charged the Commander of Naval Installations with providing antiterrorism force protection, said Jim MacIsaac, the systems engineer for wide-area alert notification at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command in San Diego, who has been directing the rollout.

'We were directed to come up with solutions to be able to alert at least 90 percent of the populace,' MacIsaac said. 'AtHoc gives us one piece of the solution.'

MacIsaac said the Navy had been working on distributing the IWSAlert system for almost two years. The service originally planned to install it in the Mid-Atlantic region, but 'we ran into issues with the NMCI architecture,' he said, referring to the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet.

IWSAlert is now about 85 percent of the way through NMCI certification, he added.
'The approach the Navy took, [a] regional approach for force protection, has several implications,' said Guy Miasnik, president and chief executive officer of AtHoc. 'Who's in charge of dealing with an emergency, the base or the region? At the Air Force it's the command post at the base that has responsibility.'

Miasnik said that the Navy is using more servers that work together in parallel, each capable of supporting more seamen.

'We also incorporated management capabilities [such as] management permission systems,' he said. 'If you log in as a [regional operations center] operator, you can send messages to everyone in the region, while if you're a base operator you only see the subset of those on your base. It's a centralized versus distributed approach to the flow of information.'

Systems can be linked

Each base's approach is not a one-time decision. As the Navy regions implement IWSAlert, they also can be tied together, while the Air Force can elect to form larger alerting groups, arranged either by command or by geography, Miasnik said.

The Air Force Strategic Command is using the IWSAlert system in a different way.

There are hundreds of operators per shift in STRATCOM's Global Operations Center, each of whom tracks information streaming in from thousands of sources all over the world, Miasnik said. The operators can define their own alerting criteria, to flag information coming in, to automatically forward it to predefined groups of people, and send it to any type of device'such as a cell phone or personal digital assistant, in addition to a computer.

'We also created an additional delivery device, a desktop dashboard,' for incoming information that is particularly urgent, or which falls into predetermined categories, Miasnik said. 'It has lights that flash [on-screen] depending on the type of message.'

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