Federal Agencies Gear Up for Instant Alerts

A number of government groups are developing or launching new ways to bring their employees and partners together -- particularly in the event of an emergency.
In response to the heightened level of national security and efforts to prepare for terrorist threats and other emergencies, a number of U.S. government agencies are leading the charge in rolling out real-time alerting systems.

Elements of the military, such as the Pentagon, have had alerting systems for some time that would send voice messages to users' mobile, home, or office phones, as well as mobile devices and PCs. But now, a number of civilian agencies are adopting the technology as well.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is one such agency -- it's rolling out a homegrown PC-based "pop-up" alerting system designed to warn employees and partners of danger and emergencies.

"What we were looking for was a solution within the Department of Agriculture headquarters," said Priscilla Carey, director of operations for the USDA. "We have a number of independent and somewhat connected local area networks, and when we try to send an e-mail to everybody, we push it out to a certain level and it has to get pushed out to a different level -- it doesn't work for us if we try to send out an emergency alert that needs to go out quickly."

Developed in-house at the agency's Ft. Collins, Colo. office, the system had been modeled after the Pentagon's system, which was provided by Dialogic Communications Corp.. The USDA system relies on PC clients to identify themselves to the server, which can then send out alerts when it knows a client is online.

"You'll get a preliminary siren kind of sound, and it will take over your whole screen," Carey said. "It says emergency, and we can be building specific on what the problem is, or we can say stay in your building."

Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, will be deploying alerting and IM into its DisasterHelp.gov Web site. Enterprise IM vendor Bantu is providing the technology behind the service, which is aimed at the nation's so-called "first responders" -- fire, law enforcement and emergency medical services personnel, totaling about 4 million.

The system provides for Web-based instant notifications, presence-detection, and instant messaging among emergency personnel and FEMA partner agencies.

"We're providing the ability for these people to communicate and collaborate with each other, wherever they're located, regardless of which company or agency they work for," said Larry Schlang, chief executive at Washington, D.C.-based Bantu. "They'll always be able to communicate with their colleagues -- that was a core requirement for FEMA when they were putting it together.

Users are given an account and can log into the portal and simultaneously, into IM. Once logged in, they are able to receive real-time alerts tied into manual or automated, back-end systems that monitor security events. Alerts can be sent to specific groups of responders, select regions, or particular individuals.

For example, the system could automatically alert specific personnel at the Marine Corp's Chemical Biological Incident Response Force, FEMA, local law enforcement, and other first responders in the event of a chemical weapon threat.

"These systems would be tracking any kind of emergency event or security threat type of event," Schlang said. FEMA "needs to automatically and immediately send out alerts to specific individuals, or teams or groups, to notify them about events or conditions and get that to them instantly."

On receiving the alert, first responders can initiate an IM conversation or multi-party chat to begin coordinating a response, and can search the DisasterHelp.gov portal to find and begin IMing online, relevant experts.

"Effective nationwide disaster management requires that FEMA enable immediate communication and real-time collaboration for the more than 4 million people involved in emergency response, no matter where they are located, which agency they work for, or what computer system they use," said Robert Coxe, Jr., executive program manager for E-Gov Initiatives in FEMA's Office of the Chief Information Officer. Bantu "has the security, scalability and 'always-on' alerting capabilities that the first responder community requires. Also ... we knew that they understood how to work with the government and that the installation and deployment would be easy and within our very tight timeframe."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is working on a three-month test centering around sending alerts about biological threats to healthcare providers' PDAs, through a project with San Mateo, Calif.-based ePocrates.

The system is intended to information in addition to the Center for Disease Control's Health Alert Network messages, which are e-mail-like messages sent to PCs at local health departments. Similarly, the ePocrates alerts travel from ePocrates to the PDAs of about 770,000 users, a large chunk of whom are practicing physicians or emergency medical professionals. Like Bantu's work on DisasterHelp.gov, the system offers the ability to target alerts geographically.

"We've been working on it for months, because what we've wanted to do is complement the Health Alert Network, which communicates with public health departments, and that information should get to physicians and other providers," said Dr. John Whyte, project manager for the trial at the department. "In the setting of an emergency, we could have information sent directly to physicians. For instance, with regard to the anthrax emergency, we could have sent information indicating that physicians can prescribe not only Cipro, but also doxycycline and penicillin. We didn't necessarily want to go through fax machines or e-mail."

The system should eventually enable department officials to launch the alerts from their PCs at the agency.

Good Enough for Government Work?

The recent trend toward alerting represents one way in which federal, state and local governments have emerged as an emerging hot area for enterprise instant messaging of late. Specialist IM and alerting vendors, in response, are becoming increasingly sought after as a way for government agencies to become more efficient and organized.

In addition to its work with FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security on DisasterHelp.gov, Bantu also has in the past several months deployed IM capabilities attached to the enterprise portals used by the U.S. Navy and the Air Force. Last year it did the same for the U.S. Army's portal.

Similarly, WiredRed e/pop has deals with the Department of Labor, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Land Management, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute of Health. Asynchrony Solution' Envoke is in use by units of the Department of Defense.

New York-based Omnipod has been working to get into the public sector market. Earlier this month it debuted version 3.2 of its POD enterprise IM system with user interface enhancements and support for 138-bit 3DES SSL encryption, and in recent months, landed partnerships with integrators Excelliant and Cybercore Technologies, both of which have connections with state and local governments.

But government deployments typically require messaging systems that can support massive scale, are inexpensive, and, for time-sensitive projects, can be deployed with a minimum of delay and training. Carey at the USDA said that her agency has shied away from using vendors for their alerting system because of concerns over deployment time and effort.

"The Pentagon used an outside contractor ... But our problem was being able to get information out quickly," she said. "We had started at looking at outside solutions and are still, but I needed to get something in faster [than an vendor deployment], and bringing in a new package and with the training and technology, I didn't believe I would have that ability."

Carey said that the USDA continues running some pilot programs to study implementing agency-wide alerting over the longer term, based on outside technology that would also provide for offer more robust features, like full-fledged instant messaging. In the agency's Kansas City office, for instance, workers are testing IBM Lotus' Sametime Quickplace, she said.

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.






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