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Subject: RE: Article mentioning CAP, EDXL

Alternative data communication key to emergency response, Perennial Awareness

News footage of last December’s Asian tsunami was horrifying. As reports filtered out of the disaster – tragic stories of slow response, of missing persons and searching relatives – discussion centered on communication failures and all the things that should have been done. Few imagined that in the U.S., four years after September 11th, we would be so unprepared for another large-scale disaster of our own.

  The aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita underscored our country’s need for significant improvement in emergency response.  That emergency personnel and agencies of all kinds on the Gulf Coast could not communicate with one another until the fourth day after Katrina hit the region – and not well after that – places the job of improving reliable contact for first responders at the top of that list.

  Fortunately, Congress has quickly recognized this need. New appropriations bills include funding to rebuild and improve communications technology as well as policies to facilitate coordination. Policy-oriented legislation is also in the works, with bills to enhance emergency communications (such as S. 1725) or to create a new all-hazards warning system (S. 1753). 

  Yet for the most part, legislation dealing with first responder contact is focused on communications via radio. But radio, an emergency response necessity, is not all-encompassing. To complement it, data communication – or the exchange of information by computers of all kinds – is being championed by emergency response and technology leaders as a critical emergency information-sharing technique.

  “First responders rely on radios – it is what they use under most day-to-day situations.  So, in disasters where they may run into others who can't share radio frequencies, or they lose connectivity due to disaster conditions, this becomes a serious concern,” says Jeff Flading of Anteon, a Virginia-based corporation that provides mission, operational and IT enterprise support to the U.S. Government. “Whether or not radio communication is available, passing information in standardized computer formats reduces the amount of information that may be needed to be exchanged verbally by radio, and therefore allow for more effective use of radio for those types of communication that are interactive and dynamic in the emergency response.”

  For most of us these days, using an electronic network to gather information or to send information to another party has become second nature.  Whether using the Internet or an internal corporate network, data communications makes jobs quicker, easier, and more fluid.  One notable exception, however, is in the emergency arena.

  Alert and warning procedures for data communications have become more complex since the baby boomer-era’s nuclear attack warning sirens. Because there are currently many devices consumers use for communications, agencies now maintain an array of disparate alerting systems and equipment, causing emergency managers to try to operate many different alert systems at the exact same time. The problem? Getting the right message out on disparate systems. Sometimes small mistakes occur, like messages with word discrepancies, but much worse are the times that warning messages contradict one another, or don't get through because there is not a human being on duty to retype the alert into a new format.   

  In order to continue using this valuable data-exchange, but make it easier and less error-prone, the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) was created. Approved in 2004, it provides a simple and standard format for sending out emergency alerts and warnings.  CAP allows a single message to be broadcast simultaneously over many different warning systems.

  CAP works for any data network, including those that don’t usually communicate well with others.  Now, information can be shared among diverse agencies ranging from local police to the National Guard to local hospitals.  More than 50 vendors and state and federal agencies have publicly announced support for CAP, and many are using it today. The National Weather Service uses a CAP format version of its weather warnings, and the U.S. Geological survey is incorporating it into warnings for earthquakes, volcanoes and wild fires.  The Bush Administration has mandated that all agencies become CAP-compliant.

  CAP was created by a cooperative, open process of many emergency experts. It was then sponsored by the Emergency Interoperability Consortium (EIC), and a broadly representative group of emergency response leaders. It was approved as a formal international standard by the international Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS). In January of 2005, the EIC entered into a formal Memorandum of Agreement with the Department of Homeland Security Disaster Management (DHS/DM) to work together to promote the development and proliferation of open emergency management standards. The EIC now references the emerging body of standards as the "Emergency Data Exchange Language" or EDXL.

  A new version, CAP 1.1, was just approved by OASIS; it allows agencies to contain more warning information.  A new "EDXL distribution element,” now published for public comment by OASIS, allows users to target more specifically the areas and agencies to which emergency messages of any kind should go.  A set of 14 “resource messages” has been developed by emergency leaders and EIC and submitted to OASIS for turning into standards.  These describe all forms of requests and responses for people and things that emergency agencies need in emergencies. 

  These standards allow data to be delivered over any type of network, and any type of communications technology, from a sophisticated fiber network to a hastily assembled Wi-Fi network.

  In an attempt to get Congress to recognize officially, through legislation, the value of data networks and open standards as vital components of emergency communication, the EIC submitted testimony to the Senate Commerce Committee on the data and standards issues and is striving to make certain that policymakers recognize the importance of interoperable emergency data communications. EIC has noted that grants to states and localities need to allow the funds to be used for all forms of emergency communications, including information technology and software, not just "equipment" or hardware.

"Interoperability for data communications is an issue whose time has come," said EIC Chairman Matt Walton. "The EIC is pleased to have worked with its partners DHS and OASIS to bring quickly bring forth CAP 1.0 and the emerging family of open standards under the framework of EDXL for emergency management and Homeland Security. With focus and commitment, the day is not far off when everyone involved in responding to disasters should be able to access the information they require when and how they need it."

  In a year of unparalleled disasters, Americans owe it to themselves and their communities to demand proven, up-to-date technologies to help responders do their jobs to the best of their abilities. No one is beyond the reach of a crisis, but there is no reason we need be beyond the reach of timely warning and prompt relief.

Art Brodsky is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C. area and has worked as a consultant to the EIC.

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Carl Reed, PhD
CTO and Executive Director Specification Program
The OGC: Helping the World to Communicate Geographically
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