Top companies gather in Washington to discuss business, disaster response

By J. Scott Orr
The Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey)
Copyright 2007 Newark Morning Ledger Co.
All Rights Reserved

WASHINGTON — Dealing with disasters, it seems, is a growth industry.

As the world's top technology companies converged on Washington last week for the annual tech-for-government trade show, major players were focusing on providing a host of systems to be deployed in the wake of disasters, natural or otherwise.

Hoping to improve emergency response after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, industry giants like Cisco, IBM, Motorola, NEC, PacStar and others are unveiling new or enhanced systems to be deployed when catastrophe strikes.

"The landscape of government opportunity has expanded since 9/11," said Bill Howell, vice president of 1105 Government Information Group, which puts on the annual Federal Office System Expo, or FOSE. He cited homeland security, the war on terrorism and natural disasters as "drivers of growth in government spending."

While some have complained that President Bush's budget blueprint for 2008 devotes too little money to disaster response, Congress has been moving toward a renewed emphasis on state and local, as well as federal, homeland security funding.

In addition, the administration backs a $1 billion Department of Homeland Security grant program intended to make local communication systems mesh better. Communication failures plagued first responders after the 9/11 attacks and Katrina.

Computing giant IBM and networking leader Cisco have teamed up to offer a series of plans for government and industry that can provide an array of communication systems - for both voice and data - within a few minutes of arriving at a disaster scene.

Under the new service, called Crisis Management Services for Crisis Response, the companies will design a plan, perhaps for local or state government or for a private company, that could include dispatching to a disaster site a complete mobile communications network contained in an SUV. For lesser needs, a suitcase-size network might do.

Standing before a shiny black network-equipped SUV last week, Charles Largay of IBM and Bob Browning of Cisco said the two companies have worked together on disaster response in 70 countries, including the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia and the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.

"We're trying to put some velocity into recovery," Largay said. He said the system is intended to work with "whatever network is left, if there is any, but we go prepared for none." It can link cellular and land-line telephones, computers as well as wireless communications even when personnel from different agencies use different devices and frequencies.

Offering a similar self-contained communications system was NEC, of Santa Clara, Calif., which specializes in VOIP Internet telephone service. The company showcased its Mobile Voice and Data Unit, which is small enough to fit in the trunk of most cars.

"During any time of crisis, including natural disasters, terrorism and civil emergencies, it's critical that government agencies are immediately able to communicate," said Paul Lopez, NEC's general manager for marketing.

Creating the "secure communications environment of a small office anytime and anywhere" is also the goal of the PacStar 3500, another deployable network communications terminal demonstrated at FOSE.

Robert Frisbee, chief executive officer of the Portland, Ore.-based PacStar, said his company's product is made to be operated by customers, unlike the IBM-Cisco system, which is run for clients by the companies' technicians.

Not all post-disaster systems displayed last week were communications systems: Tenth Floor, an Ohio-based company, was touting its "Base 10" software as a simple means of presenting disaster response and recovery information on the Web after network access is restored.

Sean Fagan, vice president of Tenth Floor, said his product makes it simple for early responders to post information quickly to emergency Web sites even if they have no IT experience. "This allows the people that are on the ground to get information to Web sites with zero delay," he said. 

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