A second phase of Virtual USA and a new online collaboration tool are among the initiatives to enhance information-sharing efforts among first-responder agencies that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security science and technology (DHS S&T) directorate announced this week.

Using Virtual USA, emergency-management officials and others can tap into myriad databases to access information pertinent to a given mission, including the location of fueling stations, the value of property damaged during a disaster or three-dimensional renderings of structures.

Five states in the northeast — Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington — will form the second Virtual USA regional information-sharing pilot, while the six states currently participating in the existing Southeast Regional Operations Platform Pilot (SE ROPP) — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia — will be joined by Georgia and Tennessee and enter into the second, operational phase.

“We are talking to other regions about this, but we only have so much bandwidth of our own to manage this,” said David Boyd, director of DHS S&T’s command, control and interoperability division. “As much as we’d like to do it everywhere all at one time, we can only handle so much at this point.”

Boyd emphasized that the effort is being driven largely by the participating states and that the federal government is not mandating that specific data be gathered or that any particular technologies be used. While the federal government is willing to help coordinate the efforts, the data available on Virtual USA is collected and controlled by the participating state and local entities, so their individual needs can be met and privacy laws are followed.

“The most impressive thing is the degree to which the states and localities have really signed on,” Boyd said. “They’re saying, ‘Not only do we want to do this, we want to do the hard work [of gathering and maintaining data information].’”

DHS S&T also unveiled the first responder communities of practice — an online tool leveraging Web 2.0 social media technologies — as part of the newly redesigned Firstresponder.gov Web site. Users must register at the site and only will be allowed to participate after their standing as a first responder is confirmed, said Jose Vazquez, director of first-responder technology at DHS S&T.

“When we talked to fire folks, they told us, ‘We’d like to have the capability of Facebook and Twitter and some of the other social media, but we want to have it in a controlled environment, where we know the people who are using it are fire and police, not just every single person who is peering into what we are doing,” Vazquez said.

DHS officials believe the new feature will be used primarily by first responders as a place to exchange best practices and identify trends in the industry, but Vazquez said he expects the platform to also be used to share information that was not even contemplated when the platform was being established.

Regardless how it is used ultimately, the portal could impact the way public-safety personnel learn from each other, he said.

“Collaboration today happens happenstance — two folks connect at a conference or because they got connected by a friend, and they’re able to work on something together,” Vazquez said. “This tool is going to give the ability for people to find each other and decide purposefully to work with each other and share with each other information that allows them to move forward. You’re able to take the best practices and move them to the top rapidly — you get to the cream of the information faster.”