Editor's note: This is the final part of a series on improving disaster response in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. To read Part 1, please click here.
Shortly after Katrina hit Aug. 29, 2005, crews in California were preparing to fly C-130 cargo planes to stricken areas of the Gulf Coast, initially to send search-and-rescue teams and, later, to airlift cargo and displaced residents.
Yet they had to wait two days on the tarmac while authorities compiled vital information on weather, flight routes and the status of airports and runways.
Even when USTranscom, the transportation wing of the Department of Defense, issued orders Aug. 30 to transport eight rescue teams to Louisiana, it had yet to locate a working airfield for these heavy-lift aircraft, according to a Senate committee report. Transcom declined to comment for this story.
What officials sorely needed was a unified view of the situation from many sources. Ordinarily, compiling such data into a formal information system would take programmers weeks or months.
In August 2005, assembling the necessary information, including airport status, delayed rescue flights for a day, said Paul Comitz,
program manager for Network Enabled Operations (NEO), a joint project on behalf of the departments of Homeland Security, Defense and Transportation. The project team gathered the experiences of Katrina first responders.
Now, with Mashup Center software from
, the NEO project has reduced the time it takes users in the field to compile information into a computer-display "dashboard" to just a minute.
That NEO system was demonstrated last spring to various federal agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration. The network allows both public and private organizations to combine on-the-fly information such as maps from the National Weather Service and flight routes from the FAA, for display on a screen.
Participating in the project with Boeing and IBM were
Computer Sciences Corp.
, Teledyne Brown, a division of
, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and
A Work in Progress
But government spending won't help unless federal agencies and private disaster-assistance organizations put the NEO system to use.
Individual agencies must still write software to turn their standardized information sources, such as weather data, into widgets -- graphical displays, such as weather maps, that can be popped onto a dashboard along with other widgets.
In addition to assisting in disasters, the NEO system may prove to be the basis for the next-generation air traffic control system, Comitz said.
In June, USNorthcom, which spearheads DOD homeland defense efforts, and numerous agencies wrapped up an annual testing program for new disaster-response technologies.
In recent years, some promising equipment has come out of the Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstration, according to Chris Lambert, Northcom's program manager for CWID.
CWID tests off-the-shelf products that usually come from private industry and foster interoperability among communications systems. For example, the Incident Commander Radio Interface ties together satellite and cell phones, landlines, and radios that operate on different frequencies.
It allows visiting fire or rescue teams to talk to the hometown emergency crews without changing out radio systems, something that was a problem for first-responders to Katrina. "All they need is this $8,000 piece of radio equipment and a cable," Lambert said.
The DHS helps out with grants to small communities to defray the cost of the interface, Lambert said.
FEMA, which came in for a drubbing for its lethargic response to Katrina, is mindful of the need to improve its capabilities. The agency didn't respond to requests for information.
The agency demonstrated its new interoperable vehicle communications systems May 30 for 60 agencies and jurisdictions in Fairfax County, Va. First responders tried out the mobile units, which are outfitted with equipment for interoperable telecommunications, life support and power generation.
"This means firefighters and police officers can communicate ... across multiple jurisdictions," FEMA said in a statement.
Along with new equipment, the NEO system shows great promise, says Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Western office of James Lee Witt Associates.
Initial verbal reports from the ground are "usually wrong and usually inadequate," Ghilarducci says. The NEO has the potential to improve the quality of shared information and situational awareness. Information fed into the system can be viewed by different commanders in a number of locations, he adds.
But NEO is "not yet in place in the mainstream disaster-response world," Ghilarducci says.
With better technology, a system more prepared today for hazards beyond terrorism, and a greater sense of cross-jurisdictional cooperation, the agencies charged with response appear to be better prepared for the next mega-disaster.
The implementation continues at all levels of government of the National Incident Management System and Incident Command System, Ghilarducci wrote recently in an email update on the topic. Those systems standardize terms and outline the means to situational awareness and interoperable communications.
"I was happier to see, particularly at the state and local levels -- both in the recent fires in the West and in the Midwest floods -- NIMS/ICS being used to a greater degree," he stated. Full use of NIMS and ICS at the local level will come with time.
"I don't think ... I can say the same for all of the federal agencies across the board." Ghilarducci still has doubts about the commitment to new methods at the national level.
"I don't see NIMS/ICS being implemented to as great of an extent as at the local and state levels," Ghilarducci stated. He suggests federal agencies may still suffer from "institutionalized culture" or reluctance to adopt new systems.