For years, I’ve attended trade shows and conferences that have featured speakers bemoaning the fact that first responders in real life do not have nearly the data capabilities used by emergency-response personnel depicted on popular TV shows. However, there are some encouraging signs that the gap could be narrowing quickly.

One of the most impressive presentations at last week’s Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) Winter Summit was a description of the Virtual Alabama online information-sharing project given by Jim Walker, the state’s director of homeland security.

Leveraging the Google Earth platform as a visual background, Virtual Alabama can provide a wealth of information with a click of a mouse to agencies responding to an incident. The location of fire hydrants, gas stations, electrical lines and gas lines can be displayed graphically to quickly show sources of potential resources — or hazards, if the infrastructure has been damaged during an event. Tax records have been integrated into the system, so damage estimates needed for federal aid can be delivered within hours of an incident, instead of weeks later.
In some cases, three-dimensional floor plans have been created for building structures, so a first responder can have a better idea of the environment he is entering. That knowledge can be augmented by video from locations where surveillance cameras have been deployed.

The vast majority of the information is nothing new; it exists in various databases owned by the state, city and county governments, as well as critical-infrastructure entities and private enterprises. However, instead of being in disparate locations, Virtual Alabama allows all the information to be integrated.
Of course, not all information is available to everyone. Entities can choose the level of security for its data, including not allowing anyone outside its organization to view it. However, these access policies can be changed quickly, depending on circumstances — for instance, a high-school principal may not want to provide police access to security-camera video until an incident occurs.

By respecting such ownership rights to information, a variety of entities are willingly uploading and updating the data in Virtual Alabama. And, while the project was designed for DHS purposes, users are finding Virtual Alabama to be useful in providing a visual representation of situational awareness in myriad applications.

“It’s become the common operating picture for all government,” Walker said.

Needless to say, Walker believes projects like Virtual Alabama can be beneficial in other states and regions, as well. While supporting the notion of a national Virtual USA, Walker expressed some concern that a federal push would include stipulations and strings that would undermine the value of the system to the users that gather and update the all-important data.

“The last thing we need is for the federal government to say, ‘It’s got to be this way,’” Walker said.

Fortunately, David Boyd — director of the federal DHS science and technology directorate’s command, control and interoperability division — appears to share this philosophy. Boyd is helping lead the Virtual USA project and said it is important that the federal government remain technology agnostic and not require states to provide any specific information; instead, participating states are allowed to populate databases with their own information.

“This is very much a bottom-up kind of approach, where we ask them to determine what it is we need to do, what are the problems that need to be addressed, and they design how this thing is going to work, which is one of the reasons they are all so willing to participate,” Boyd said, noting that he hopes the federal government can pull out of Virtual USA entirely when it has matured to the point that states can run it themselves.

It will take some time for all the information to be uploaded, but Virtual USA and its state-driven components could provide valuable information for first responders, whether they are located in a headquarters building or on the front lines of an incident scene. Of course, having all this data available is only helpful if it can be accessed quickly by those who need, which only reinforces the need for a nationwide public-safety–grade wireless broadband network so this valuable information — particularly the images and video.

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