Emergency-response reps discuss ways to involve tech industry

Emergency-response reps discuss tech industry involvement Technology industry and emergency-response representatives told a Senate panel on Wednesday that establishing the technology equivalent of the National Guard could save lives during a crisis. However, the Bush administration's technology policy director had reservations about creating government mandates that could lead to technology standards.

As the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) struggled to address the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, "it would have been helpful to draw on the expertise" of the Northern Virginia tech corridor and Silicon Valley, FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh told the Commerce Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space.

While some technology companies donated equipment and expertise, Allbaugh said much of the equipment "was not state of the art" and looked more like excess, discontinued inventory. And "many came with a bill," he added.

Subcommittee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called the hearing to explore his proposal to create NetGuard, a voluntary corps of technical experts who could fix problems. "It's time to create a high-technology reserve," Wyden said.

Sen. George Allen, R-Va., also called for the examination of the telecommunications and Internet networks to ensure they remain functional, but government should not duplicate private-sector efforts, he said.

Allbaugh supports the idea of creating a one-stop shop where the federal government and private sector could exchange information on tech needs and tech solutions to crisis situations. John Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, noted that the White House Office of Homeland Security was established with such a goal in mind, adding that "there are a number of mechanisms that are in the early stages of responding."

FEMA would like to see a standard-setting agency to sort through types of necessary technological capabilities, test them and recommend the best ones, said Ron Miller, who heads FEMA's information technology department.

While some government agencies do have the technical capability, a centralized system would help, Miller said. Each time FEMA has to evaluate a technology proposal, it "takes time away from the day-to-day business" of the agency. He added that FEMA does not have the proper testing facilities or resources to do the job right.

However, Marburger said the idea of the government setting standards makes him nervous. Marburger embraced the idea of a voluntary system that encourages business and industry to work together. While the government has a great deal of scientific and technological resources, Marburger said he was "certain that those resources will not be used to their greatest effect unless we join forces and resolve the technical issues together."

Wyden also would like NetGuard to help create communications systems that could withstand attack.

Craig McCaw, chairman and CEO of Eagle River, noted that current wireline telecom systems are made up of "a hierarchical infrastructure that is highly susceptible and vulnerable to attack." That highlights the importance of having multiple providers and technologies, he said.