Tech prepared to make 'major contribution' to homeland security

Recent Forum Seeks To Remove Communication Barriers Among Nation's First Responders

Experts from federal, state and local governments plus the private sector gathered at a forum sponsored by the Georgia Institute of Technology Oct. 16-17 to examine communication and technology problems facing the nation's homeland security officials.

The Georgia Information Sharing and Integration Forum -- sponsored by Georgia Tech's Center for Emergency Response Technology, Instruction and Policy in collaboration with the White House Office of Homeland Security -- took place in the auditorium of the Institute of Paper Science and Technology, 575 14th St.

The forum was the first of four scheduled throughout the country at which White House officials hope to examine best practices for information integration and sharing developed by first-response agencies, private industry sources and state and tribal governments.

"Information security and the sharing of information among first-response agencies will be crucial for our nation's homeland defense efforts," Georgia Tech President Wayne Clough said during opening remarks at the forum Oct. 16.

"Georgia Tech is prepared to make a major contribution in this area of research," he said.

Beyond the impressive expertise available through the College of Engineering, Clough said, the Institute stands ready and able to assist in a variety of areas critical to the nation's homeland security needs -- especially in the fields of biology, chemistry, computing, information technology and logistics.

"We believe Georgia Tech possesses the capabilities to assist with all of these issues," he said. Clough also stressed the importance of strengthening ties and communication efforts among local first-response agencies and their state and federal counterparts.

"The way we obtain and use information is key to maintaining a secure society," he said, "and our nation's homeland security really depends on hometown security."

Steve Cooper, special assistant to President George Bush and senior director for information integration at the White House, also discussed challenges faced by the Office of Homeland Security. He said information sharing would be a cornerstone of the proposed Department of Homeland Security.

"I have learned that there are folks that are doing absolutely fantastic stuff within their communities of practice," Cooper said. "The rub is that [their work] is not connected to anything else."

In order to make homeland security work, officials must make connections among various communities and spread the word on best practices, he said. This includes ways in which first-responders might communicate during a crisis, for example, or new ways local, state and federal law enforcement officials might share information from national "watch lists" to apprehend wanted individuals.

"I would argue that we have the talent to address and detect terrorism. We just have to hook ourselves together," Cooper said. One way to do this, he said, might be to create or organize a central clearinghouse of information that could act like a central brain or nervous system, allowing the nation to respond to threats.

"It [would not be] meant to be a controlling brain. Everything does not need to be directed by the federal government," Cooper said. "What we do need to have is a brain that understands everything that is going on … so that we have the ability to connect and be aware of what's going on around us."

Cooper said federal officials realize that many needs and questions remain to be addressed in the creation of a Department of Homeland Security. Among them is striking the appropriate balance between privacy and security for citizens; aligning policies and laws with desired security outcomes; identifying and consolidating redundant and duplicative efforts at the federal level; and the introduction of new technology that will enhance information sharing.

During the two-day forum in Atlanta, organizers held panel discussions featuring members of the region's first-response community. They sought to identify what's needed and what's available to first responders in the way of information-technology networks that might help prevent future terrorist attacks or minimize loss of life and property in the event of an attack or other disaster.

Forum participants also examined lessons learned and best practices developed during previous emergency response situations and reviewed a plan for creating prototype emergency-response systems on a regional basis.

"Panel moderators facilitated discussions among all participants to the end of identifying reusable initiatives and solutions that can be incorporated into a regional emergency-response model," CERTIP Director Tom Bevan said. "In addition to the panel presentations, representatives from the Dallas Emergency Response Network described their network's operation for possible application to a Georgia regional-pilot project."

Attendees of the forum primarily were officials from CERTIP's partners in the Southeast who specialize in information technology issues. These specialists represent agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Marine Corps Systems Command, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Hartsfield International Airport. CERTIP's state partners include the Department of Public Safety, the Georgia Mutual Aid Group and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, among others.

CERTIP was founded in 1999 to examine and apply emerging technologies that might counter the threat of chemical and biological warfare agents and aid the nation's first-response community in its efforts to protect lives and property. The center's partners include more than 35 regional and national government and private organizations.

For more information on CERTIP or its recent information-sharing forum, contact Director Tom Bevan, Center for Emergency Response Technology, Instruction and Policy, (404) 894-8076 or tom.bevan@gtri.gatech.edu.