Thursday, June 18, 2009 | The Department of Defense invented internet 1.0. But the military and public safety agencies have been slow to adapt to internet 2.0, and the consequences have at times been dire.

Communication breakdowns significantly slowed the response to the 2003 fires, which killed 17 people and burned hundreds of thousands of acres. Agencies improved their response to the 2007 fires, but there were still key miscommunications — especially having to do with transport planes the military had available, but that weren’t used in fires’ early stages.

First responders from the myriad of agencies responding to the fires couldn’t communicate with each other because their communication systems weren’t — to varying degrees — compatible. And the systems, each built from scratch, were hugely expensive, and inflexible.

“A few years ago everything was very mechanical,” said Jay Iannacito, who works for the Navy’s San Diego-based Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, or SPAWAR, and Wednesday led a demonstration at San Diego State University’s Visualization Center of the latest in communications systems.

Computer networks were closed and classified, Iannacito said. “You had to give one person a password or a keycard and another person the same thing. And if those two people didn’t see it outside their perspective, then the information didn’t get out or didn’t get in. Now things are much more open.”

Iannacito and others in and around the realms of the military and public safety say a revolution has taken place in just the last few years. Officialdom, they say, is finally on board with web 2.0. Government agencies now understand that they don’t have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for pieces and parts of a disaster response system that could be handled with a $50 Google application.

Emergency personnel can tweak Google Earth or use open-source software programs or Wikipedia-like interfaces to help them make split-second decisions on where to deploy resources. This sea change was on display at the demonstration at SDSU, an annual event mandated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that is officially known as the Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstration. And based on what was on display, “gee whiz” these days is also “gee, that looks familiar”.

“It’s about using cloud computing and things that are out there that don’t have to be built from scratch — leveraging other people’s resources,” said Eric Frost, the SDSU geologist who runs the center, which is known as Viz Lab, a room with a lot of computing power and large-screen GIS displays that has helped with disaster response efforts worldwide.

“Another is Twitter — 140 characters and right now it is probably the major web community abroad.”

Twitter’s dominance as a communication platform was on display during this week’s protests in Iran following the disputed election. Protesters used Twitter to elude Iran’s police and military during the confrontations.

“[Twitter] was able to give the protestors a better situational awareness than all the police forces that were there,” Frost said. “The protestor with 10 seconds of preparation had more command and control than all of the military, the police, everyone.”

Frost said military and public safety agencies have to develop programs that are as simple and as flexible as Twitter, if they expect to be effective. He said the technologies on display over the next two weeks at the Viz Lab are a step in the right direction.

The center, which receives funding from the Navy, has a heavy focus on computer-aided mapping and provides real-time information to first responders in the 2003 tsunami in Indonesia to Hurricane Katrina to the Southern California wildfires.

At the lab Wednesday a U.S. Navy petty officer, an officer from the San Diego Police Department and a representative from the Royal New Zealand Navy worked on simulations of a multiple-disaster scenario that will be played out over the next two weeks.

In the scenario, wildfires have broken out in San Diego County, a dirty bomb is set off at Broadway Pier, there is an explosion at Qualcomm Stadium and a boat commandeered by a terrorist in New Zealand is now off the coast of San Diego.

Exercises like this have long been used to test prototypes for state-of-the-art communication systems. The interfaces now used at the highest levels of emergency response bear a striking resemblance to the web-based programs that average folks the world over use on a regular basis.

At one terminal Wednesday, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Rory Vera created Wiki-like pages that would be used for real-time updates during an emergency like a wildfire. And just like with Wikipedia, the updates could be edited by first responders if they turned out to be erroneous or out of date.

Next to Vera, San Diego police officer Chris Escudero worked on a web-based database that keeps track of where resources are being deployed in an emergency. The Police Department will be a chief beneficiary of a record amount of Homeland Security grant money. The city did not offer many specifics as to what equipment and software will be purchased with the grants, but did provide a document that lists initiatives that will be funded with the money.

Across from Escudero was Daniel Engle. His company, NextNet Consulting, is an example of the new brand of company that government agencies from the city of San Diego to the Pentagon do business with. The two-person operation earns its money by helping agencies take advantage of off-the-shelf technologies. Right now it is helping with InRelief.org, a website owned by the Navy and managed by SDSU that is an information-sharing portal for those who help refugees of war-torn countries.

“We don’t own any routers or servers or anything like that,” Engle said. “We built a communication network with $50 Google apps.”

Please contact David Washburn directly at david.washburn@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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