A CapWIN Fourth

Independence Day squall shows online emergency network's promise and problems.

Washington, July 4, 4:21 p.m.-People have been gathering all day in the green environs of the National Mall in anticipation of tonight's fireworks cele- brating America's birthday.

Four miles away, it's a hive of activity inside a powerfully air-conditioned room at the Anacostia Park headquarters of the U.S. Park Police, the lead agency supervising July Fourth festivities on the Mall. The National Weather Service is tracking a fast-moving storm heading east from Virginia. Time to start telling folks what's coming their way.

4:44 p.m.-Park Police Lt. David J. Mulholland sends out a message to a dozen area agencies, notifying them that the storm cell is causing hail and 40 mph winds more than 20 miles away at Washington Dulles International Airport. Most law enforcement and emergency agency communications depend on point-to-point talk devices with dedicated swaths of radio spectrum. But today Mulholland is using a keyboard as a way to broadcast information.

The digital tool he and others are using is provided free by the Capital Wireless Integrated Network (CapWIN), a quasi-governmental partnership between Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Every Fourth, the Park Police and workers from a dozen or so area federal, state and local agencies pack into a fluorescent-lit room stocked with communication gear. Each person is an information node leading back to his or her organization. It's a straightforward way to solve the interoperability problem bedeviling emergency response-have everyone show up at a central nucleus and send out messages from there. Cell phones drone, radio handsets crackle, telephones ring and the space buzzes with people who have something important to say. Mulholland looks up from his computer screen. "Eighty percent of what's being done in this room could be done on CapWIN," he says, his big hands back to pecking away at a tiny portable laptop.

CapWIN provides a multipurpose collaboration tool that users load onto a computer or personal digital assistant. It allows them to establish secure online chat rooms dedicated to specific events-such as the Fourth of July-and to connect to law enforcement databases. The price of admission is supporting their own communications links, whether through a commercial wireless service or a dedicated land line.

The agencies using CapWIN this particular day-some with representatives at the Anacostia station, some not-are in it mostly for the chat room function. Rather than repeating the same message to each agency that's online, Mulholland can type it once and everybody will get it intact. "The beauty of this is that there's no information distortion," Mulholland says.

Just like in a childhood game of telephone in which a message is repeated around a circle to the point where it comes out hopelessly garbled, so too can emergency management messages grow imprecise. CapWIN boosters like to tell the story about a man who stole a Pentagon Force Protection Agency radio during the May 29, 2004, dedication of the World War II Memorial, when the system was fielded for the first time. What had gotten around on the radios was that the man had stolen a Pentagon radio, uniform and van. The correct information was entered into the CapWIN event chat room, along with a side note that the robber was trying to get a date with the Pentagon dispatcher. "We can sure as hell de-escalate the situation" with CapWIN, Mulholland says.

5:16 p.m.-The storm is starting to hit 7th Street and Independence Avenue. Federal buildings and museums along the Mall are taking people in from the downpour outside. Although Mulholland sits ready at his computer station, voice communication still remains the primary link among the cooperating agencies.

"We're still getting them used to the idea of using it," Brian Hall, a National Park Service information technology specialist, says of his colleagues. Hall has been especially glued to the radio he's carry- ing on his hip.

How far an online text tool can go in replacing voice communication in emergency situations is debatable. Even supporters acknowledge limits. "Some interchange has to be verbal, just for the sake of clarity," Mulholland says. Plus, emergency responders feeling their way on hands and knees through a pitch-dark and smoky building aren't going to thumb type their way through it. They need a single button to push and a live voice on the other end. But people on the outside would be superb candidates for CapWIN, feeding relevant information to first responders.

5:17 p.m.-The storm is blowing through West Potomac Park, near 17th Street. About five CapWIN users are situated in the field, at mobile command stations or in Park Police cars. An unresolved issue facing CapWIN's expansion is connectivity. An officer sitting in a patrol car can be an unequaled font of live information-and a vital recipient of it-but only where the wireless signal is working.

Wireless connectivity also means relying on commercial providers-only the private sector has had the means to build such a network. Relying on commercial infrastructure for emergency response makes many government entities nervous. The network could go down just when it's needed most. Supporters say wireless technologies being developed could soon solve this problem. But they acknowledge even then it will be tough convincing people that connectivity is guaranteed.

At the moment, Mulholland is firing off messages by the second: "5:19 p.m.-Medical tents reported collapsing. 5:20 p.m.-U.S. Capitol is accepting people." CapWIN is a force multiplier, he says: "It really expands my capabilities."

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