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Homeland Security eyes local response system

Regional program could help feds develop national network

A high-tech emergency-coordination system currently being tested in Palo Alto has been chosen by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for a study of effective multi-agency communications during crises.

Dubbed the Silicon Valley Regional Interoperability Project (SVRIP), the project disseminates information among police, fire and other public-safety agencies instantaneously, allowing each group to monitor and coordinate resources.

The system is designed to prevent the kind of confusion that took place in New Orleans during the Katrina disaster, according to Santa Clara County Supervisor Liz Kniss, co-chair of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network.

"I was really just sobered after Katrina. Counties are the first responders. I hate to say this, but I know when we came back that we weren't prepared. ... The most important part is the big "C" word -- communications. Without interoperability, you can't communicate city to city or agency to agency. To do that you have to have an interoperable system," she said.

Eighteen local public-safety agencies have been working since 1998 to enhance inter-agency public-safety communications, but the events of Sept. 11 galvanized forces and SVRIP was more formally launched, according to Sheryl Contois, director of technical services for the Palo Alto Police Department.

The goal of SVRIP is to link all 30 government public-safety agencies in Santa Clara County through a wireless system.

The Department of Homeland Security is interested in the project because it is trying to develop a model to link local, state and federal agencies across the country, according to Contois, who is vice chair of the SVRIP steering committee.

"Department of Homeland Security sees us as the model that can be easily replicated," she added. The local system is building on existing technology, rather than starting a system from the ground up. Homeland Security has a team of five specialists who meet with SVRIP personnel to give input into the system.

With public-safety agencies all on the same channel, communicating is instantaneous, allowing not only notification but also monitoring personnel. Traditionally, groups have used different channels, and it would take three minutes longer for agencies to contact each other, according to Contois.

For example, from the initial call to the dispatcher, three separate calls would have to go out to contact all of the agencies needed for an emergency.

"In an injury-accident, the Milpitas dispatcher has to call San Jose (police) and they call County Communications," she said.

The system is currently in place in Milpitas, San Jose and Santa Clara County. If all goes well and funding comes through, Palo Alto will be linked up after completion of the city's pilot project at the end of the year. The Palo Alto pilot cost $2.5 million.

SVRIP is composed of five projects: a regional digital microwave network; a translator between 13 disparate Computer-Aided Dispatch systems; a voice channel; radio channels that allow unlimited talk-groups; and Secure Broadband for sharing video, photos and other time-sensitive information at high speeds. Each of the five achieves a different aspect of interoperability.

More than $14 million has been invested in the county-wide project thus far. Another $51 million in federal support is being sought to build out the five projects county-wide, according to a Palo Alto City Manager's report.

Kniss said the goal is to make sure if one system fails, such as if there is no electricity or if cell-phone towers are non-operational, the channels of communication will still be open. The county recently purchased 35 satellite phones.

Contois pointed to the massive fire at Henry Coe State Park as an example of how interoperability could be beneficial. The system could help coordinate and shift resources quickly and efficiently -- particularly critical at a time when resources are strained due to multiple wildfires statewide.

Kniss recently witnessed one aspect of high-tech action during emergency response, when the Cupertino wildfire broke out in the hills Aug. 30.

"A lot of fire and safety personnel all had their fingers out and were whipping away on their Blackberries," she said.

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