EIIP Virtual Forum Presentation – April 6, 2005

The National Emergency Alerting
and Response Systems Initiative

David Aylward
Director and Founder
The ComCARE Alliance

Amy Sebring
EIIP Moderator

The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. A raw, unedited transcript is available from our archives. See our home page at http://www.emforum.org

[Welcome / Introduction]

Amy Sebring: On behalf of Avagene Moore and myself, welcome to the EIIP Virtual Forum! Today's topic is "The National Emergency Alerting and Response Systems Initiative (NEARS)." This is a follow up to our last session on early warning, and also marks the occasion of the recent national launch of NEARS on March 30th. It also is an update to a previous session on EPAD.

Now it is my pleasure to introduce today's speaker. As you may know, we originally had ComCARE's Director of the EPAD initiative, Judith Woodhall, scheduled to speak. Unfortunately, she took ill this week, and we hope she will be well soon. Fortunately, David Aylard agreed to step in, and we are very grateful.

David is the Director and a founder of the ComCARE Alliance. Previously, he founded National Strategies, Inc. in 1985, following eight years of service on the staff of the U.S. House of Representatives. From 1981 to 1985, Mr. Aylward was Chief Counsel and Staff Director of the U.S. House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Consumer Protection and Finance, which had jurisdiction over federal communications regulation, the U.S. securities industry and financial markets, and a variety of federal consumer protection legislation, including automobile safety. Please see the Background Page for further biographical information and links to related material.

Welcome David, and thank you very much for pitching in today. I now turn the floor over to you to start us off please.


David Aylward: Welcome everyone to the EIIP Virtual Forum and today's discussion on the National Emergency Alerting and Response Systems Initiative, commonly called NEARS. Today's session will provide you with a quick overview of this initiative and answer four basic questions: what, why, who, and how.

Simply put NEARS is a non-profit cooperative effort launched by a growing coalition of national organizations. This three track initiative plans to demonstrate and deploy interoperable emergency data messaging, using national emergency message and data standards, commercial information technologies, and a shared, electronic directory of agencies called the Emergency Provider Access Directory or EPAD. If you recall from a previous forum, EPAD gives agencies the ability to register for emergency messages based on their geographic and incident interests, enabling any authorized official, such as a sheriff, a governor or the President to send data messages to them.

The NEARS framework allows multiple systems and networks to communicate effectively and efficiently. It can be deployed rapidly because it works with technology already in use for emergency response. Emergency agencies don't have to toss out their old technology investments and install new devices or software. They just need to build interfaces to the standardized data messages.

Last week we demonstrated EPAD across the nation using the approach the NEARS initiative is following. We had approximately 200 emergency agency users in over 80 agencies in 31 states and DC exchanging emergency data messages in real time using 20 different vendor applications. Among others, this included passing messages from a variety of emergency operations center tools through the law enforcement NLETS Network to police agencies. Using 6 different scenarios, some or all of these agencies received the messages based on their EPAD registrations. All the data communications used the draft data standards being developed by emergency agencies with DHS facilitation.

Here is a graphic of the participants in that demonstration:

[Slide 1]

The open architecture we so strongly endorse was demonstrated by the use of different messaging and message receiving applications. The only shared elements are the data messaging standards and the shared EPAD utility.

[Slide 2]

Upon completion, NEARS will allow every emergency agency registered in EPAD to send an emergency data message to any other emergency agency in the directory. It will improve preparedness planning and emergency event coordination efforts because it provides one approach for all-hazards emergency messaging, whether they are about mass emergencies or single events, and whether an agency needs to contact other agencies, private entities or the public. It can be used for terrorism events, public warnings, border control, public health alerts and everyday emergencies. This "one approach for multiple uses" concept will significantly improve operational efficiency so that emergency response agencies can focus on emergency response, not on trying to decide which system they need to use or on the administrative tasks of keeping multiple directories up-to-date or looking for contact information during an emergency event.

Why it is needed? Because in an era where technology can bring news, current events, and entertainment to the farthest reaches of the world, many emergency response agencies and personnel cannot share data with one another--even if they are in the same jurisdiction. Currently, there is no straightforward interagency emergency messaging capability and there is no comprehensive directory of emergency agencies - even a paper one. The ability to communicate across professions and jurisdictions is a critical missing link in today's environment. It impairs our ability to respond to many types of emergencies

Today, if an agency wants to communicate with another agency, it must bear the expense of developing a one-to-one customized interface for each new agency with which it wants to communicate. As systems change, these interfaces will need to change as well. This increasingly expensive approach creates incompatibility and obsolescence dangers that agencies cannot afford. Or, all the agencies in one jurisdiction or area may be required to purchase special software--whether it meets their needs or not - so everyone can communicate because they are using the same system.

Currently, there are over 100,000 emergency agencies in the US. If we expand that number to include schools, private infrastructure companies and emergency support organizations like the Red Cross, that number exceeds 250,000. There is no way one agency can afford to create interfaces to each one or even keep contact information up to date. Yet, during the course of its work, an agency will need to communicate with a number of these organizations, and in a mass disaster, far more.

The growing number of diverse organizations supporting the NEARS initiative clearly demonstrates that there is a willingness to cooperate between emergency response agencies. Currently NEARS partners include representatives from fire, law enforcement, 9-1-1, EMS, emergency medicine, public health, emergency management, private infrastructure and the media.

These partners include:

  • the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP)
  • the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International (APCO)
  • the American Public Health Association (APHA)
  • the Brain Injury Association of America (BIAA)
  • the Brain Trauma Foundation (BTF)
  • the ComCARE Alliance
  • the Emergency Interoperability Consortium (EIC)
  • the Emergency Nurses Association (ENA)
  • the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP)
  • the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute (GWHSPI)
  • the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM)
  • the National Association of EMS Physicians (NAEMSP)
  • the National Association of EMTs (NAEMT)
  • the National Association of State EMS Directors (NASEMSD)
  • the National Emergency Number Association (NENA)
  • the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC)

and others. Supporting organizations include the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). The partnership is open to all emergency response organizations. The partners are dedicated to this project's success and have developed an approach that will take this emergency messaging vision from concept to reality.

The NEARS Initiative starts with National Emergency Messaging Month. Where the DHS-sponsored National Preparedness Month focuses on citizen preparedness, National Emergency Messaging Month focuses on communications preparedness for emergency response agencies. This first NEARS track demonstrates what could be. It will be a very public and broadly inclusive program to demonstrate actual data interoperability between scores of technology companies and thousands of agencies. The goal is to create awareness and validate the effectiveness of this approach by using some basic emergency message-enabling tools, currently in prototype form, to support state and locally-developed exercises and outreach activities. The month will culminate in a national messaging demonstration organized by the NEARS partners. The NEARS coalition will sponsor this event.

Track 2 involves the people, processes, and technology needed to make emergency messaging a reality for both everyday emergencies and mass events. The goal is to complete the development of EPAD and its basic messaging component, publish routing standards, and establish rules for operation. The final track of the initiative seeks to create model all-hazard systems by conducting a series of long term, realistic demonstrations and trials. The partners propose that five diverse regions undertake detailed programs using the new integrated emergency messaging system based on the tools developed in Track 2 along with common communications and data standards. The goal is to integrate the new national data and message sets and these new tools with legacy emergency information systems as quickly as possible.

The NEARS initiative is estimated to cost $16-18 million. These funds will be used to build, test, and deploy a production version of EPAD, to coordinate its management by the partner organizations, to develop policies and procedures for secure message exchange and to train the emergency response community.

The NEARS partners are confident that NEARS holds significant promise for the emergency community. Once complete, this community will have a blueprint for the national deployment of modern emergency messaging that can be used for all-hazards incident management and emergency response. In addition, they will have the support of a diverse group of partners committed to make cross agency communication successful for all emergency response agencies - and the communities they serve.

The partners officially launched the NEARS initiative last Wednesday March 30th with a press conference followed by meetings with key representatives on the Hill and in specific Federal agencies. NBC News was there and as a result local news organizations all over the country broadcast the launch. This exposure created additional interest among emergency response agencies wishing to become a part of this initiative.

We are currently in the process of developing a web site for NEARS. Please see http://www.comcare.org/nears/index.html at your convenience. In the meantime, feel free to contact me if you would like more information about the program and/or its partners. I can be reached by email at [email protected]. Or contact Judith Woodhall, our Managing Director in charge of this initiative. [email protected]. Our telephone is (202) 429-0574. Thank you for your interest, and I will turn the floor back over to our moderator to begin our Q&A.

Amy Sebring: Thank you very much David.

[Audience Questions & Answers]

Rick Tobin: How will this additional network overcome the very same barriers we have now with many systems that simply are ignored during real events when things are crashing down?

David Aylward: NEARS is a beginning of all the emergency groups working together to build the common data sharing approach that doesn't exist today.

Ed Kostiuk: With SAFECOM being given more "bite" during FY06 will this system be compatible for those of us at State and Regional levels? My concern is with rural areas of Oklahoma!

David Aylward: This should help deliver on the promise and requirements of SAFECOM, which has been focused on wireless. The design came mostly out of concerns for serving smaller agencies.

Amy Sebring: David, do you know when the National Emergency Message month will be yet?

David Aylward: It should occur within two to three months of our consortium receiving funding.

Jeff Silberberg: How does the design fit into the OASIS [the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards], and CAP [Common Alerting Protocol] work that has been underway for awhile and what will the focus be for message routing; are you looking at LDAP [Lightweight Directory Access Protocol] or building your own directory architecture ?

David Aylward: It fits like a glove. The emergency messaging we demonstrated last week used CAP. EPAD will use open source LDAP.

Joe Sukaskas: Is NEARS dependent on the availability of the public switched telephone network (which could, and probably would, be impaired during a major disaster), or can it operate over alternate communications paths (e.g., cellular networks, RACES/ARES, Internet-2, HSIN, etc.)?

David Aylward: You can use any network.

Skip Tamargo: How can we participate in NEARS?

David Aylward: email [email protected]

Jeff Silberberg: As a cendor, we already have a product supporting State & Local agencies doing messaging. How would we participate in this ongoing effort?

David Aylward: This is all open architecture. Any authorized vendor (i.e. serving emergency agencies) would have access to the shared EPAD for routing.

Avagene Moore: David, I am also from a small county. Two questions: As NEARS evolves, how will small rural communities and counties get involved? Is there a publicity campaign (demonstrations) planned beyond the National Emergency Messaging event?

David Aylward: In our demonstration last week we had the volunteer ambulance company from a rural Virginia county receiving message into its own alerting tool and sending them out to its individual members. We will have on-going demonstrations and outreach building support for this cooperative approach. If you are an agency or vendor and want to participate, let [email protected] know.

Chris Gorzynski: Is NEARS intended to be a top-down approach to message dissemination? Or would it begin at the local level and sent through the EPAD as individuals deemed necessary?

David Aylward: Not top down. Most emergencies start and stay local. Any authorized agency could send a message using EPAD.

Jonathan Dunfee: Will there be design artifacts available for the public (i.e. a group not affiliated with a government agency)? I've started a Free Software package for ICS support and would love to see the interfaces.

David Aylward: Sorry, Jonathan, I will have to give that to our tech director who is out of town. But this is not a proprietary effort.

Scott Bliss: David, for some of the smaller agencies will EPAD provide messaging via DMIS [Disaster Management Interoperability Services], which may be available to them as a tool?

David Aylward: We intend to give away the messaging software we have developed to demonstrate the use of EPAD. Yes in fact, our consortium demonstrated sending messages through DMIS (and your company's product) last week.

Jeff Silberberg: David, How do you see functioning with the NWS [National Weather Service] EMWIN All Hazards network?

David Aylward: EPAD would give them a directory of all agencies which wanted to register to receive their alerts. There are lots of networks and emergency products; we believe we will get farther with sharing. Like other agencies and products, NWS could have a direct interface to EPAD.

Jeff Silberberg: David, are you saying you expect NWS to modify their code to function with yours, or do you plan an interface as part of EPAD?

David Aylward: Jeff: No, they are already using CAP for the message. If they want another source of addresses to send to, they can do a one time Web services interface to EPAD to suck down the computer addresses of the registered agencies.

Amy Sebring: I am not clear on what the local agency must do to receive messages besides being in the EPAD directory. Messages come by what means?

David Aylward: A local agency must register in EPAD for what incidents it wants to hear about, for what area and how it wants it sent. Then it must have an interface into its existing tool, or get a new one. Then it can use any delivery network.

Avagene Moore: David, what connection, if any, is there between NEARS and the interoperability backbone provided by DMIS? Does using DMIS make things simpler/easier?

David Aylward: Let's be clear. We are not proposing a competing network. DMIS is an application and also a growing network that can be used to connect parties together. EPAD is a shared, nonprofit "address book", which none of these networks or applications have.

Amy Sebring: David, what kind of interest was expressed by those you visited with in Washington?

David Aylward: We got very strong interest in initial meetings on the Hill, at DHS, and with the FCC.

Skip Tamargo: We have a national shared address book. How can we integrate it into NEARS?

David Aylward: Come be a partner. This is an open club.

Robert Lawrence: What will be the dissemination mode(s)? Is satellite being considered?

David Aylward: Any form of IP network you want to use. PBS intends to use satellite. NEARS is an approach, not a specific technology.

Jeff Silberberg: David, we are both a distribution point and an origination point for Amber Alerts being issued by our installed customers. Using this message type as a basis, can you explain a little more the flow of an Amber Alert through EPAD, and its value added?

David Aylward: Sure. One of the incident types in EPAD is Amber Alert. An agency registers in EPAD for car crashes, Amber Alerts, etc., and gives a geographic area. Your tool could query EPAD and send the alert to them without your having to build that directory yourself, i.e., it should supplement your current capability.

Lori Wieber: After a quick look at your first slide, I didn't spot any electric or gas utilities as participants. Can you share any plans for outreach to that area of critical infrastructure, or if there was a participant or two from utilities?

David Aylward: Very good point. We have a broad definition of "agency", which would certainly include those you mention. We would love to have them involved. We have started with the media. Please come help add those folks if you can.

Isabel McCurdy: What are the expectations/criteria of being a partner?

David Aylward: Depends on your group. National emergency response organizations need to spend time helping guide the technical and organizational effort. Contact [email protected].

Amy Sebring: David, I expect the funding you mentioned is key, but assuming there was funding in FY06 to get started, how long do you expect it would take to go national?

David Aylward: There is already appropriated funding in different agency and program pots that we hope to access as we believe we can help those programs succeed. I hope we can have production quality systems operating by next year.

Sunny Ahn: David, on the messaging side, can you comment on where the industry is with a standard messaging effort. Are there any issues?

David Aylward: Sunny's company is developing a neat, cheap alerting and scheduling tool for volunteer agencies which we demonstrated last week as part of this chain. No issues on messaging; everyone cooperates with no concerns--ever. Seriously, on messaging standards, a lot of people are working hard to bring together the heretofore disparate efforts.

Joe Sukaskas: David, to your knowledge is the system being used in the current TOPOFF 3 exercise, and if so, by whom?

David Aylward: System is not being used in TOPOFF 3.

Isabel McCurdy: Will Canadian agencies have access?

David Aylward: Yes indeed. We had a Toronto company (FMTI) participating in the demonstration last week. We think border protection requires interoperability across that boundary also.

Avagene Moore: David, what type of training is required and do you have a training strategy in place as this goes national?

David Aylward: We have a simple training chart/instructions for registering in EPAD and using the EPAD Connect messaging tool. Much more sophisticated training will be needed when these tools are used in the broader context we advocate (i.e. plugged into legacy systems). If I can do it, anyone can! Regarding a training strategy, work with us. That is not our expertise. Some of our emergency organization partners do have training skills.

Amy Sebring: In follow up to Isabel's question, and looking down the road, is there any other international participation or interest? Are you talking to our State Dept. for example for a potential international solution?

David Aylward: We have our hands full in North America. Certainly the tools and architecture could be applied anywhere, e.g. inexpensive, fast linkages for tsunami warnings.

Jeff Silberberg: David, What will be the process to add message types to the Directory, or are you adopting an existing FIPS standard base and using their process?

David Aylward: Message types are being developed independently through a process where we are part of a team being funded by DHS to do facilitation. There would be a single interface to the directory.


Amy Sebring: That's all we have time for today. Thank you very much David for an excellent job, and please thank Judith for all her help, and relay our best wishes to her. Thanks also to your staff.

David Aylward: Thank you all for the opportunity and for participating.

Amy Sebring: Please stand by a moment while we make a couple of quick announcements. Again, a transcript will be available later today. If you are not on our mailing list and would like to get notices of future sessions and availability of transcripts, just go to our home page and click on Subscribe.

We have a new partner to announce, Context Connect, Inc., URL: http://www.contextconnect.com, POC: Sunny Ahn, CEO. We are happy to welcome them. Thanks for being with us today Sunny! If your organization is interested in becoming a partner, please see our homepage, "Partnership for You."

Thanks to everyone for participating today. We stand adjourned but before you go, please help me show our appreciation to David for a fine job.