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8/18/2006
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Disaster Readiness Puts Tech Tools To The Test

Can thumb drives, mash-ups, and RSS improve our ability to react in emergencies? The organizers of two disaster simulations hope to find out.

San Diego this week will be the site of a massive viral outbreak that stretches emergency response efforts to their limits, as a terrorist cell unleashes a wave of cyberattacks to bring down the power grid, Internet access, and landline and cell phone connectivity. Fortunately, it's a mock exercise, a scary what-if scenario of quarantine and confusion. But no one's saying it couldn't really happen.

Hundreds of first responders and technologists will attend the event, called Strong Angel III, testing technology and techniques for coping with such a disaster. The timing is noteworthy, coming two weeks after a foiled terrorism plot in the United Kingdom and three weeks before the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

"If Katrina was any guide, we're not ready with a level of community preparedness, and cybersecurity is a part of this," says James Gilmore, who was governor of Virginia on 9/11 and chaired the Gilmore Commission, which assessed the country's ability to respond to terrorist attacks involving weapons of mass destruction. "The one thing you want to do is keep intact the telecommunications infrastructure, including both wired and wireless communication." Gilmore now chairs the Homeland Security Practice Group of law firm Kelley Drye Collier Shannon.

San Diego State University's visualization lab will serve as the nerve center for Strong Angel III

San Diego State University's visualization lab will serve as the nerve center for Strong Angel III
Organizer Dr. Eric Rasmussen describes Strong Angel III as "a working disaster response laboratory." The event simulates some of the conditions that Hurricane Katrina relief workers encountered a year ago at the Hancock Medical Center near Waveland, Miss., after floodwaters destroyed laboratories on the first floor and Internet connectivity was lost.

To participate, applicants submitted proposals outlining how the technology or techniques they wanted to demonstrate met more than 50 criteria established by event coordinators. The emphasis was on the intersection of social needs and technology, such as the ability of military and civilian organizations to coordinate relief, the deployment of a wireless network to assist communications, and the use of Short Message Service on GSM cell phones to locate and communicate with survivors.


People First

The first Strong Angel event in 2000 focused on better ways to respond to crises such as the refugee migration in Kosovo. Rasmussen was asked to present his findings to officials, including the secretary of the Navy and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Surgeon for the Navy's Third Fleet at the time, Rasmussen went on to draft a document with 10 "commandments," 20 recommendations, and 30 advisories outlining how the military could be more effective in humanitarian support when working with civilian relief groups.

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Four years later, Strong Angel II addressed lessons learned from the Afghanistan and Iraq war zones. "What came out of this was the value of the social network becoming formalized," Rasmussen says. His team provided insight that was used to help create a Defense Department policy that directs the U.S. military to consider giving humanitarian support equal priority with combat operations.

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