Mum's The Word

By Larry Barrett  |  Posted 2005-05-04 Print this article Print

The cornerstone of Orange County's disaster preparedness is a new software system from EDS.

Mum's The Word

On a typical summer weekend, more than 70,000 guests populate the 54 hotels and motels sprinkled within the 2.2 square miles of The Resort District, as it is called. The fact that both the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have identified Disneyland as a possible terrorist target resonates throughout the community, even if The Walt Disney Co. refuses to publicly discuss how or even if it has improved security since 9/11.

"This is one topic that we just don't talk about," says Disneyland spokesman Bob Tucker. "This is a special place. As a matter of policy we don't talk about [terrorism]. It has everything to do with protecting the image and magic for children. Nobody wants their children to read that Mickey Mouse is hunkering down in his bunker worrying about the happiest place on Earth being blown up."

While no one expects a tragedy of the magnitude of the tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia (see p. 32) to occur in Orange County, local business and civic leaders are taking few chances.

The cornerstone of Orange County's disaster-preparedness effort is a new software system developed by Plano, Texas-based Electronic Data Systems Corp. called the Enterprise Virtual Operations Center (EVOC). Anaheim is the first city to install the software, which EDS developed specifically in response to the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

"What happened on 9/11 was a defining moment," says Steve Hutchens, EDS' director of homeland security solutions. "We all learned that local fire and police departments needed a better way to share data among themselves."

The software went live in June 2004, creating an on-screen war room that first responders can use during a catastrophic event. The program pulls together data from multiple agencies and sources to give all participants immediate access to incidents, as well as names and features of responders such as bomb-sniffing canine units or hazardous-materials specialists. All the information can be viewed on large desktop monitors, laptop computers and even the 4-inch screens of handheld devices.

Having information such as how many police squad cars are within one mile of the event, or whether traffic is backed up on Harbor Boulevard or Magnolia Avenue, available instantly and simultaneously to the police chief, the fire chief, the mayor and the city manager allows for efficient and immediate response when a disaster occurs. In practice, it would reduce duplicate efforts, alert first responders to impending or potential dangers as they approach a site, and give respondents defined roles—such as which units will enter a building and which will be responsible for closing down a particular street and establishing a parameter presence—when they arrive on the scene.

The software gives firefighters and street cops detailed information they've never had at their fingertips before. For example, the software is connected to more than 200 digital cameras installed at major intersections, large venues such as the Anaheim Convention Center and critical public utility sites such as electricity substations and water and sewage locations. On the move, a cop can view a digital image of the traffic or the building in question. Also, most Anaheim squad cars are now equipped with digital cameras, so cops can transmit images back to the system of what is going on, right in front of them.

When a 911 call comes in to police dispatch, the recorded message can be transmitted to the cop or firefighter en route. The department also can tell an officer that a call from 1100 W. Katella Ave. is near a Coco's restaurant. The officers even get a map of the restaurant, parking lots and other businesses nearby. Also on display: major power sources in the area, major water and gas lines, and locations of entrances and exits of large buildings.

"It gives everyone more knowledge and tells everyone involved what a particular patrol unit is doing at any given time," Martinez says. "In the past, we could never have collected or shared this much information in such a short period of time."

The software sits on two separate servers in the Anaheim area, helping ensure that police chiefs and commanders can view the response at any time from any laptop anywhere in the world. In the past, this information—spotty and incomplete as it was—could only be accessed from the main police station. If an earthquake had leveled the police headquarters, there'd be no there, there.

All the decision makers determining which streets need to be cleared for emergency responders or which hospitals should receive victims need not be in the same room or even on the phone. Say two patrolmen are inside the California Adventure theme park investigating a fatality on a roller coaster, and two others are en route. The system will keep track of where they are connecting from. The software also notes every resource allocated, such as which fire station is dispatching emergency medical help and what detective is available to work the case. At any time, all participants who are logged in can tell who's going where and when.

"It makes such a huge difference to have not only the depth of the information but the ability for everyone to see it in one place," says Capt. Steve Sain of the Anaheim Police Department. "Already we see the benefits of collaborating and sharing our data with other agencies."

According to Sain, the software has made it easier for police to determine which officers to send to a particular crime scene when multiple events are occurring at the same time. In the past, he says, there might be a bank robbery occurring at one location and a patrolman close to the bank might be dispatched to respond to another less-important call farther away. Now, everyone has a complete view of the entire field of officers and firefighters.

Senior Writer
Larry, of San Carlos, Calif., was a senior writer and editor at CNet, writing analysis, breaking news and opinion stories. He was technology reporter at the San Jose Business Journal from 1996-1997. He graduated with a B.A. from San Jose State University where he was also executive editor of the daily student newspaper.

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