EIIP Virtual Forum Presentation — November 18, 2009

Virtual USA (vUSA)
Geospatial Interoperability for Emergency Response

Christopher I. McIntosh
Subject Matter Advisor
Department of Homeland Security Virtual USA Program

Amy Sebring
EIIP Moderator

The following has been prepared from a transcription of the recording. The complete slide set (Adobe PDF) may be downloaded from http://www.emforum.org/vforum/vUsa/vUSAoverview.pdf for ease of printing.

[Welcome / Introduction]

Amy Sebring: Welcome to EMforum.org and Happy GIS Day everyone! I am Amy Sebring and will serve as your Moderator today. We are very glad you could join us.

We are observing GIS Day today, and our topic is the DHS Virtual USA project (vUSA). Please note there are two related fact sheets that you can access from the handouts icon of three note pages here at the top right of your screen. These are also available from our Background Page, where there are additional related links.

The Virtual USA initiative has been modeled after successful forerunners in the states of Alabama and Virginia. There are similar efforts going on in other states so we are doing a short survey:


How well does your state agency support your GIS needs?

Extremely Well = 9 (25%)
Adequately = 17 (47%)
Poorly = 9 (25%)
Not at all = 1 (2%)

Now it is my pleasure to introduce today’s guest:

[Slide 1]

Christopher I. McIntosh, currently serves as a subject matter advisor to vUSA and previously served as Operations Section Chief at the Virginia Emergency Operations Center. There he developed and fielded the Virginia Interoperability Picture for Emergency Response (VIPER) system. In addition, he has served as Chair of the Operations Subcommittee for the Southeast Regional Operational Pilot Program (ROPP), which had a successful demonstration earlier this month.

Prior to joining the Virginia Division of Emergency Management (VDEM), Chris was an Operations Analyst for the Navy component of the National Ballistic Missile Defense Program in Arlington, Virginia and previously served over ten years in the United States Navy.

Welcome Chris, and thank you very much for being with us today. I now turn the floor over to you to start us off please.


Chris McIntosh: Thank you for having me, and good afternoon, everyone. It’s a true honor to present to this group of widely dispersed and knowledgeable participants and hopefully we can all work together in the future to further information sharing in the Virtual USA initiative.

[Slide 2]

Virtual USA is really an attempt to solve a national problem. What we have is we have numerous stovepipe and redundant information sources, whether they are in local, state, or federal levels, that don’t share information with each other.

Let me give you an example. When I was in Virginia, we had a wildfire outbreak. It was a Sunday afternoon. It was a beautiful, clear day. Unfortunately, there was a draught going on, and the winds came up, the power lines went down, and we were off to the races with wildfires all across the state.

By the end of the day, we had wildfires in 60 of the 140+ jurisdictions in Virginia, had major damage, and unfortunately, had a few fatalities as well. When I got to the EOC and tried to get situational awareness of the problem, I went to our plans chief office and looked over his shoulder and said, "Mike, what is going on?"

Mike said, "I don’t know, I’m trying to find out." When I saw what he had on his computer, he had 18 websites open that he was trying to aggregate in his head in order to paint a picture of the problem. Each of those websites had a piece of information. It was a portal, it showed weather, was a link to an agency or whatever, but no where was that information being aggregated into one place.

The national problem here is we do have an inability to seamlessly share information and collaborate in real time. How do we make information actionable to the responders and to the decision-makers when there is an ongoing and escalating crisis?

This contributed to problems in Hurricane Katrina because, let’s be honest, when we look back into the after action reports of Katrina, situational awareness and an understanding of the magnitude of the problem was a key component in the inefficiency of the response.

It also inhibits our protection, prevention, response, mitigation and recovery disciplines. All those disciplines tend to work on their own. The planners don’t necessarily share information with the recovery people. The protection folks don’t necessarily share information with the response people because they are all working on documents and plans that ultimately end up in 3-ring binders on somebody’s shelf.

We have problem with culture. We don’t have an information-sharing culture between agencies and between disciplines. We tend to think, "This is my data. This is my information. Why should I give it to you? You might do something that I don’t like with it. You might do something and give it to somebody else without my approval."

We have this culture of, "This is my sandbox and I want to stay within it". We have to change that. We have a problem with incompatible communication and information sharing systems. That goes to proprietary languages, proprietary databases, all those kinds of things.

We’re at an interesting crossroads with this, because if you look, this is almost identical to the problem that faced voice communications 20 years ago. Unfortunately they weren’t able to resolve those early, and now we’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to retroactively engineer solutions to the lack of interoperability between those radio systems.

[Slide 3]

What we’re doing is we’re working on a solution called Virtual USA. There are a few key components to Virtual USA overall, the first of which is technology agnostic, which means it’s inclusive. It doesn’t matter that you’ve already invested in a GIS platform in your jurisdiction that you know how to use, that you’re comfortable with, that fulfills your business needs—no one in Virtual USA is going to come to you and say, "You need to change. You need to not use product X. You need to go buy product Y and throw that old one away."

We understand that a dollar only goes so far. It goes a little bit less far now. So we want to leverage what everyone has done with their platforms and build upon them so that they can all work together and share information.

A resilient and redundant technological infrastructure—we’re talking about systems that are going to be used in the worst cases. Yes, they are going to have day-to-day functions—yes, we’re going to use them for many, many day-to-day activities. Bur when the rubber meets the road, under the worst case scenario, these are the kinds of things we’re going to come to rely on.

The infrastructure that they’re dependent upon has to be resilient and redundant. It has to be hardened. We can’t allow single points of failure. We have to make sure that they’re survivable and can be used in poor conditions. That is a major factor of what we’re looking for.

A governance structure—in Virginia, right now, if they wanted to share information with the 5 states that border the Commonwealth of Virginia, they would have to come up with 5 different sets of governance between Virginia and North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland, Virginia and District of Columbia, etcetera. That would be 5 different sets of negotiations.

When I was working with VIPER in Virginia, that almost became a full-time job for me—trying to negotiate with different information sharing partners and customized arrangement for each handshake, if you will, between systems and between organizations. Virtual USA will provide a common framework where you only have to do that once.

Yes, we have to get everybody to agree, which is going to be a Herculean task, but once done, I don’t have to have 5 different projects to share information between Virginia and its neighbors, because we already have one and we can all leverage that.

Preservation of and respect for information origins—we believe that the information needs to be maintained and controlled at the lowest level, whether that’s the locality, whether that’s the agency, whether it’s the state—it depends on the information—but that lowest level not only has the ability to make sure the information is the most current and relevant, it also controls whether or not is does or does not want to share that information.

We respect the sovereignty of the individual jurisdictions. In a Commonwealth, such as Virginia, that means respecting the sovereignty of the counties and the unincorporated cities. From a Virtual USA perspective, it means respecting the sovereignty of the state as well to decide what they do and do not want to share on any given day.

[Slide 4]

What we’re ultimately trying to do is make information actionable. When you have a data point—say an incident has occurred—that’s a datum, but it doesn’t have any context, which means that an operator has a hard time taking action based upon that data point. But if that data point can be matched against a supporting database, or a supporting piece of information from another source to paint a picture of how bad is bad, or what is the actual situation, or what are my options, now you are making that information actionable.

In order to do that, you have to be able to collaborate with different information providers in order to query and analyze information against each other and paint a truly comprehensive picture of a situation.

[Slide 5]

I’m going to go through two platforms—one, I’m obviously more familiar with, that being that Virginia Interoperability Picture for Emergency Response. I want to run through both of these though, because these are two of the more mature systems that are being worked into Virtual USA and they are just two different examples of how it’s possible to do business. These are by no means the only two, and by no means a comprehensive look at each one of them.

VIPER uses an ESRI model—uses ESRI software--our GIS server on the backend in order to do the analysis and the querying, and it uses an Adobe Flex interface to view the information. It takes GIS data sets from all over the state of Virginia. As a matter of fact, I believe they are running about 150 dynamic feeds and they have 400+ traditional GIS layers that are in VIPER that allow it to fulfill the requirements that they’ve established for it.

VIPER is fully operational. It is used every day at the Virginia Emergency Operation Center in order to support decision-making. As a matter of fact, it was used extensively last week during the flooding that occurred after tropical storm Ida passed through and became a nor’easter and sat there for awhile.

It is available to all Virginia government agencies and the citizenry. Right now VIPER is open. If you look at that website there at the bottom of the screen, you type that into your browser, that will give you access to VIPER so you can see it. They are evolving that into a role-based system ranging from public to secure, depending on the kind of information that is in it (whether it sensitive or proprietary from a private partner, such as a utility), it will be fit into one of those different categories.

This is fully operational, and it is used to support emergency management and some law enforcement functions every day in the Commonwealth of Virginia. I have a few screenshots I will show you in a moment.

[Slide 6]

The problem in Virginia was, we didn’t have the ability to integrate sensors and other environmental data into our operating picture. We couldn’t keep up with the fluid demands of an operations environment, which is says right there. I’ve taken the wildfire example.

The next question I asked after my planning section chief said he didn’t know what was going on and he tried to figure out, I turned to my GIS manager (whose name is Brian Crumpler) and I said, "Brian, I need a map of where these fires are." He said okay. I went back to him 3 hours later, "Where is the map?" He didn’t have it yet. Three hours after that, he brought me a map that showed me where the fires were 3 hours ago—not really useful information in a fast-moving, escalating situation such as a wildfire outbreak.

That was just because we didn’t have the ability to ingest and fuse all the various information that Brian needed to create those maps. Also, he brought me a map, so I was the only one who had one. We had to make copies and get all of those spread around.

It was not good for a rapidly escalating situation when we have the event getting worse, and we have more and more people getting called in to the operations center to start manning up the emergency support function, and they are all needing to gain situational awareness. We couldn’t keep up.

[Slide 7]

What we did when we came up with VIPER, one of the first requirements that we focused on was pretty simple. We needed dots on a map. We needed to know where stuff was happening. We needed to know it now, and we needed to know it as soon as it was input into some sort of input system. We wanted to take our real-time systems (and the state EOC in Virginia uses WebEOC) and marry it up with GIS, with all the functionality and the capabilities of GIS tools.

We also wanted to see what matters. This is a critical component and this is what sets VIPER apart from other systems. We use a methodology called "report by exception". Report by exception is simply applying filters to data that only allow it to be displayed to the user when it hits pre-set criteria.

We started talking to the subject matter experts, and said, "What are the kinds of information that you think are important?" One of the interesting ones was we talked to the Department of Transportation road engineers. They said, "We need to know when the air temperatures are 35.6 degrees or below." I didn’t know anything about roads and bridges, so I said, "Why 35.6 degrees?" They told us that’s when bridges start to freeze.

Now in VIPER, when the temperature goes below 35.6 degrees, a pink dot appears on the map. If the temperature goes below 32 degrees (freezing), that dot turns purple. The operation center now knows where to look for potential road freezing based upon air temperature before it happens.

[Slide 8]

I have some screenshots, like I promised. What you’re looking at is an actual screenshot of VIPER in action. This is a typical Friday afternoon. It is showing, in the summer, the weather and the traffic that we experience in the Commonwealth on a fairly regular basis.

I’ll walk through some of the things you’re looking at here. You have traditional radar from the National Weather Service coming in, Doppler radar. You also have the weather watches and warnings that are being displayed out in front of that weather front, and annotated as the polygons as the shapes on the map there.

The black dots within the weather are radar indicated lightning. The diamonds within the weather are hails, and the circles are areas of circulation within the storm. The small yellow squares you see there (there is one just to the right of Waynesboro), are one of those "reporting by exception" things. That’s a wind gust that exceeds 25 mph.

People don’t want to see all the wind all the time. They only want to see them when they get damaging. 25 mph is a good indication of that. When wind gusts exceed 39 mph, it turns orange, and above 75 mph, it turns red.

These yellow diamonds with the black hatches on them are hazardous materials incidents coming from the WebEOC system. One of the things we were able to do is convert the database on which WebEOC runs into a common language (in this case, GeoRSS) so they can be displayed and ingested by any GIS platform.

We’re actually able to, when someone types information into a crisis management system such as WebEOC, a symbol appears on a map that links to that data record. All the orange diamonds coming out of Washington, D.C. and the Hampton Roads area are traffic reports coming from Virginia’s 511 system.

The Department of Transportation invested quite a bit of money into an open roads program that takes data from traffic reports and maintenance events and displays that visually on their own website. We were able to convince them of the utility of sharing that data feed with the state EOC so we could put it on VIPER and fuse it with information coming in from other sources.

In return, the Department of Transportation Emergency Operation Center uses VIPER routinely to see not only how their traffic situation is evolving, but also what other events that the state EOC is monitoring, i.e. the hazardous materials incident that could impact the traffic as well.

You can see just on this map, a routine day in Virginia, there’s a lot of information from a decision-maker’s standpoint that allows us to view and have a quick (15 seconds or less) understanding of the situation within the Commonwealth at any given time.

[Slide 9]

As we drill down into some things, this is a close-up of a storm, one thing you’ll see right here in the middle—a red square, and the letters "TVS"—that is a tornadic vortex signature, or commonly known as a hook echo, within that storm, that is being broadcast by the National Weather Service.

You see the lightning, which are the black dots around it. You also see all these labels up here—flash flooding, thunderstorm wind damage, etcetera—that are reports coming in from the National Weather Service’s Skywarn network, which is people calling in and telling us what they’ve seen.

This pink tornado behind the storm is a report of a funnel cloud coming into the Skywarn network. Within this paints the picture for the decision-makers, you have a weather warning (which is the polygon), you have the TVS (which says the radar is saying something that is happening), and then you have the report behind the storm which says, yes, the storm is rotating and there is visual evidence of tornadic activity.

This is critical for us in emergency management disciplines because it allows us to start proactively preparing for an event as it is occurring, or even before it occurs, without having to wait for the phone to start reading or damage reports to start pouring in. It has really helped our ability to get ahead of problems.

[Slide 10]

A quick overview of Tropical Storm Danny—last year that just occurred on the coast—it shows that they bring in products from other places. Anything that’s out there, from the Weather Service to the Hurricane Center, etcetera, is available is brought into VIPER as an overlay.

Also you see these things, like this one here in Augusta County that has the red rings around it—those are situation reports that the localities are putting into WebEOC system, being shared with the Emergency Operation Center, and when that situation report comes into the Operation Center, this pops up on the VIPER system in the EOC and the red ring actually pulses at you to let you know, "There’s a situation report come in from Augusta County. You probably need to look at this and see what’s going on."

Once again, it’s all the decision-making aids and decision-making tools in one place for guys like me that have to operate in the bigger picture.

[Slide 11]

Here are more weather watches and warnings being displayed for real-time data, real-time incidents. You see a wind gust here of 30 mph, that’s why you have the yellow square there, and all the damage coming in behind it. There’s a lot of weather in these slides because they are the most visually appealing things, but we actually use this for all hazards, all different kinds of events. They’ve identified actually 60 types of events that they deal with and there are response plans for all of them within VIPER.

[Slide 12]

It also brings in any kind of imagery, whether it’s bird’s eye imagery, Google Earth, Google Street View, traffic cameras, etcetera. Also, with reporting by exception, you see a vehicle fire here, reporting by exception is also used here to say, "Show me the traffic cameras that are nearest to that event automatically."

You see these traffic cameras up here, there are two of them displayed, that’s not because the user actively went and turned that on as a layer, it’s because the system said, "Here are two traffic cameras that meet the criteria that you’ve established for me to show you traffic cameras." In this case, it is within 2 miles of an incident at a certain zoom level.

It is proactively pushing to the operator—these are the kinds of things that you need to look at, and these are the tools that are available for you to gain control of the situation.

[Slide 13]

I spoke about the situation reports earlier as well.

[Slide 14]

Also we used this. This was an exercise last spring for 2 dirty bombs that were detonated in the national capital region. You’re looking at evacuation sectors around each one of those bombs. You’re also looking at these little bus-looking things, which is tied into the state EOC’s request management system. They are dynamic in nature.

If a request comes in for resources at the state EOC, one of these appears on the map, and the color of the circle around the bus indicates its status. The yellow one here is just submitted; the green one, the one with the green circle over here, has been fulfilled. The decision-makers know the status of the resource requests that the state is dealing with.

[Slide 15]

This is a methodology that I spoke about—getting information out of WebEOC and into a viewer, simply put. You have WebEOC, which is configured in a special way in Virginia in order to give the data a geospatial component. That is broken down into a GeoRSS feed which allows it to be ingested not only by visual tools, such as VIPER, but also by other spreadsheets, such as Excel, which is kind of the unintended side benefit of all this. Now we can create reports and sort data using the commonly used tools like Microsoft Excel.

[Slide 16]

Virtual Alabama is a completely different approach. It evolved independently of VIPER, and it is more of a virtual representation of the entire state, not specifically focused on the business processes of the Emergency Operation Center. They seek to be much more discipline agnostic. However, the benefit of that is, they are getting data from many, many different fields that are now available to decision-makers should a crisis occur.

For example, they use this information for their gas stations. Their Commissioner of Revenue has to go out and check all the gas stations and do weights and measures twice a year, so he knows where all the gas stations are. Now, because he has put that information into Virtual Alabama, the emergency managers now know where all the gas stations are and what there status is, and they can use that in formulating their response plans in the event of major events.

[Slide 17]

They have staging areas and all kinds of other things that are available. They also have multiple disciplines from the police and fire at a tactical level that can input information within the system. They have traffic information that goes in; not only traffic cameras, but actual flow rate of traffic on the roads, which is obviously critical, given an evacuation scenario.

That is available to say how fast traffic is flowing—do we have to consider contra flow and open up the other side of the freeway, etcetera. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and it really is in that kind of scenario.

[Slide 18]

They built 3D models throughout Alabama. It’s neat what they’re doing. They are actually leveraging the work of students from the University of Alabama to build these models and they put those into the system. That is available to give you a 3D representation of the environment you’re looking at, which can be critical depending upon the scenario.

Those are available, and leverage the power of Google’s 3D viewer, which gives that special kind of oblique look to things—how tall a building is, how big a building is—that kind of thing can lend impact on decisions that are made. They also have blueprints of buildings available within Virtual Alabama.

What we’re looking at here is the University of Alabama. You see all the classrooms. The red diamonds that are on the floor plan indicate areas of flammable storage. You click on one of those and the actual flammable locker, a picture of it, so they can see what it looks like should a response be necessary in that building.

They integrate in real time IP based video from within the school. You’re looking at an actual hallway there within the University of Alabama so you can see what is going on inside the building. As I’m sure you’re aware, with me coming from Virginia, there are serious benefits to being able to have that information in a crisis.

[Slide 19]

They are also used for damage analysis. When you’re dealing with somebody like a governor or a mayor, you want to show them. You can tell them, and you can throw numbers at them and reports at them all day, but really, a picture tells the story better than anything else.

Before and after imagery is critical to help them understand in their mind how bad is bad, how bad is a situation, and do I need to ask for help—is this beyond my ability to handle what is going on.

[Slide 20]

So you have a before, and then an after overlaid. Emergency managers have access to numerous imagery sources ranging from civil air patrol to UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), and everything in between. So where this imagery comes from isn’t the salient point. What is important is the fact that they can be overlaid on top of each other. Virtual Alabama and VIPER both have slider tools that allow you to go back and forth between the two pictures so you can accurately gauge the level of damage that has occurred.

[Slide 21]

Virtual USA overall—Virtual USA seeks to bring together platforms such as VIPER and Virtual Alabama, two different platforms, two different ways of doing business, two different sovereign states, each with their own specific laws, specific procedures, and unique requirements, and allow them to share information back and forth.

What they’re doing is allowing them to share information so that the data put out by Virginia is viewable within Virtual Alabama, and the data put out by Virtual Alabama is viewable within VIPER. It’s not a single system that everybody goes to to look at data. It’s not a clearing house where information is housed.

It’s an actual attempt to link all these tools together in a hubless, seamless, resilient network so that states can gain situational awareness of what is going on in other states through their own organic viewer.

[Slide 22]

These are the core principles of Virtual USA. I think they’ve gotten it right this time. What this slide says is all data/ information is local, and that goes from the national level on down. The localities know what is going on. They know when things change; they have to be able to be the ones to maintain the data set.

Previously, there have been a lot of initiatives that said, "Everybody populate this database in the sky. Send it to me and we’ll put it here, and then you can come get it when you want it". The problem with that is, that database is going to be out of date virtually before it is even completed because things change.

The Virtual USA model is—you maintain your data, and then you share it, and we’ll fuse it for all different levels based upon the needs of the data subscriber. It’s a bottom-up approach. It’s practitioner driver. As a matter of fact, I’m talking to you today from a conference in Washington, D.C. that has brought practitioners in from around the country to start building requirements. The way that we’re asking them to do it is, when you’re sitting there and you’re managing an event in your jurisdiction, what are the questions that you need answered? What are the things that are of concern to you that you would need to know in order to better manage a situation?

I’ll give you an example: The Emergency Management Assistance Compact, which is a way that states share resources or request resources from one another without the involvement of the federal government. One of the problems with that has always been—how bad is bad in that locality halfway across the country?

During Hurricane Ike down in Texas, Virginia sent about 2 million dollars worth of Virginia equipment down there to assist in the recovery, but once that equipment left the state of Virginia, we had no visibility on it. We had no idea where it was, what it was being used for. The problem in the end was, when they got there, they didn’t necessarily have a good understanding of what they were getting into.

What we’re hoping through Virtual USA is that the operations chief in Virginia can send a request for information to the operations chief in Texas and ask for imagery, ask for situation reports, ask for damage assessment, in order to better prepare the resources that are being sent down there and make sure that they fit the problem that is effecting the area and effecting the location down there.

Virtual USA and ROPP (Regional Operations Platform Pilot) that was just completed in the Southeast is part of a look at information sharing in many, many different areas—within the state, within the jurisdictions, within the localities, within the regions within a state. What we’re really looking at is how you share information across state lines quickly, reliably, securely, and in a way that not only technically serves the needs of both locations, but also serves the needs of both locations from an operational context.

[Slide Unavailable]

The next slide should be the hurricane coming into the gulf. What you’re looking at right here is in Virtual Alabama, you’re looking at information from all across the Gulf Coast, from Texas all the way to Florida in the wake of an approaching storm. What Alabama is able to do is see what is going on in other states, and see what is going on in those other states that may affect Alabama.

If Florida evacuates the panhandle coast, all of that population is coming into Alabama. Alabama would really like to see what is coming on the roads heading their way, and Florida would really like to see what Alabama is doing to prepare to receive this displaced population, whether it’s opening shelters, opening schools, having the Red Cross come in, etcetera.

That sharing of information just across the border is key to a collaborative response to the situation. Let’s be honest, the disasters don’t know the borders we deal with, and really don’t care.

When you drill back into your information, also coming in as the storm approaches into Virtual Alabama from the storm, coming into the coast, coming from numerous sources, whether it’s the Weather Service or whatever, and being married up with information from numerous states.

[Slide 23]

The regional pilots that we went through—the first regional pilot was in the Southeast. We started out with 7 states. The first meeting was in February of 2009. The seven states were Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Virginia, and Georgia. When we first started out, only 2 states had a platform that we would consider mature or operational, and that was Virginia and Alabama.

All 7 states at the end had some level of capability, with Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi developing a fairly mature level of capability. The interesting thing in the pilot is that they went different directions—Mississippi and Louisiana went with Google, Florida went with ESRI.

It was a validation of the concept that each state picks what their business processes are, identifies their requirements, and then selects the tool that is best suited to fulfill those requirements, while at the same time still being able to share information with everyone else.

We did do a Charter and a Governance Compact, which identified many of the issues in information sharing and overcame many of them in order to allow the states from political, legal, procedural, and technical perspectives to share information.

On November 4 of this year, we did the full-blown demonstration. I was privileged to be at the National Response Coordination Center at FEMA for that. We had widespread interest from numerous agencies and areas of the federal government, including the White House. It validated that need that this is an initiative that needs to move forward. It really is revolutionary to emergency management and emergency response.

Just starting up is a pilot project in the Pacific Northwest (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington) that allows them to build up the lessons learned of the Southeast and try to evolve this to the next level.

It’s very interesting for us in this pilot, too, because they have very different governance structures in the Northwest than they do in the Southeast, so we’re interested to see how completely different sets of rules within the states apply to this information sharing initiative overall.

We just had the kickoff meeting for that in September. We’re racking up the frequent flyer miles flying back and forth out there, getting that up and running.

[Slide 24]

The last slide is just a visualization. This is vertical and horizontal information sharing. It comes from the localities, from the city, the state, from the region, to the nation. Not only is it vertical, it’s also horizontal. The same methodology allows cities to share information with cities, states to share with states, regions to share with regions, and ultimately countries to share with countries.

It’s a common set of procedures. It’s a common set of techniques that we’re working on building and developing a collaborative type of environment where people not only share information, but they also share success stories—when you figure out how to do a certain type of analysis, or develop a tool, or develop a procedure, or have a methodology that has relevance in other places.

That gets shared, so it helps to defer the costs of stovepipe development over and over again, paying for the same thing over and over again across the country. We are really wanting to embrace that spirit of collaboration, that spirit of open source solution in order to greatly improve the capabilities of each jurisdiction, state, and the nation to handle large-scale events and incidents, and also provide us all situational awareness on a day-to-day basis, which allows for efficiencies and cost saving in the way we do business overall.

And with that, I think I’m running up all my time, I’d like to open it up for questions.

Amy Sebring: Thanks very much Chris for that excellent overview. All I can say is we certainly have come a long way in the last decade or so. Now, to proceed to our Q&A. If you have participated in vUSA or one of the state initiatives, we would be interested in hearing about your experience as well.

[Audience Questions & Answers]

Thomas Ferrentino: How do they plan to integrate the Emergency Data Exchange Language (EDXL) into vUSA, or have they already done this?

Chris McIntosh: EDXL, CAP, GeoRSS, XML—all of those different standards are being looked at as interoperable languages in the Virtual USA network. As a matter of fact, we were just talking about EDXL this morning, and how we would include that in what we’re doing. The bottom line is that the Virtual USA methodology is inclusive in nature, not exclusive.

The more of those types of languages that it’s possible to use as an interoperable language, we want to include, and not exclude. We understand there have been investments made into EDXL, there have been investments made into all the other interoperable languages. If it’s technically possible to get that information in as an interoperable language, we’re going to use that.

In some cases, that is a little more difficult, so we are looking also at building some translators, if necessary. That’s a stop gap measure until we can get the actual languages identified and go back to the vendors and get them to operate a little more interoperable with each other as well. It is definitely something we are looking at.

Dan Shellenberger: Is Virtual USA only going to be available for governmental agencies? My company has been designated CIKR and I am looking at GIS to manage emergency response.

Chris McIntosh: The core of Virtual USA will be government. However, how other networks are plugged into the outside of Virtual USA is something that we’re exploring, especially with the interest of private industry. We don’t look at Virtual USA as a beginning and an end of a network. It is a node type of a system so there is no reason why there couldn’t be a node from the government portion of Virtual USA to a private industry Virtual USA that can share information back and forth across the different networks.

We understand the different networks would have different access and vending requirements to actually get into them per se, but there’s no reason we couldn’t do information sharing across the networks, whether it’s Virtual USA government, Virtual USA tourism, Virtual USA economic development, depending on what the scenario and the situation might be.

Clinton Andersen: So to participate in vUSA, each agency (or state) would essentially need to build their own VIPER or Virtual Alabama? How long did it take to build VIPER and at what cost?

Chris McIntosh: The first thing that each agency or state or entity needs to do is identify what their needs are. VIPER was built to fulfill the needs of the Virginia Emergency Operation Center specifically. Because the VEOC had existing hardware in house, VIPER essentially cost nothing but man hours. We also happened to have some very smart people who happened to work there.

I can’t give you a dollar figure for a turnkey solution, because it is highly variable. However, both Virtual Alabama and VIPER, if you needed a turnkey, start from scratch, type of a thing, they run less that $200,000 for everything. If you have things you can leverage that you’ve already purchased, whether they be servers, whether they be licenses, whether they be people, that cost can be mitigated quite a bit.

VIPER had initial operating capability in August of 2007, so it’s just over 2 years old. Virtual Alabama is about 4 years old. It didn’t take a lot of time for either of those systems. When we talk about the collaborative environment, if you’re interested in a VIPER type system, or if you’re interested in a Virtual Alabama type system, both organizations have implementation--in fact, VIPER will even provide you the code for free-- so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. They are going to turn over that 2 years of work to you and let you continue to develop it for your needs, hopefully with the understanding that in the end, you will give them something back in terms of something you have figured out that they can put back into VIPER.

It’s a collaborative environment. I think that we can all leverage the heavy lifting that Alabama and Virginia have done on this as we develop more systems down the road for less expense and less investment of time.

Ric Skinner: To what extent are hospital and other healthcare facilities (e.g., nursing homes) tied into VIPER (or Virtual AL) and what kinds of information is available (e.g., bed availability, blood supplies, ER capacity, etc.)? To what extent will hospitals and healthcare be tied into vUSA?

Chris McIntosh: Great question. In Virginia, in VIPER, the Virginia Hospital Association has tied in 2 different ways. One, they have WebEOC so their WebEOC systems are linked together, which ultimately links them to VIPER. The other is they actually have a resource management system within the healthcare association that puts out, in a format, the headcounts, the divert status, the different specifics about each hospital.

Working with hospitals has been interesting because they have HIPAA laws and different kinds of regulations that apply. I think most of that has been worked through so they can actually provide status information to the state. Obviously, that information has implications beyond the state borders. So with the blessing of the hospitals, that information can then be shared with the Virtual USA network given a specific set of circumstances.

The neat thing all of this is that the applications are only limited by our imaginations. The data is out there, the connectivity is out there, it’s just how we apply the data that’s the challenge. What are the questions that we all need answered, and what is the data that we can go, and how can we analyze that data in order to answer the question—and that applies to hospitals, critical infrastructure, anything you might be able to think of.

Kenny Ratliff: Where can I learn more about the pilot project taking place? We are working something similar for the CUSEC region and may be duplicating efforts. Thanks!

Chris McIntosh: There are a couple of brochures that I believe you have available. You can also contact Department of Homeland Security Command Control and Interoperability Division, who is facilitating these pilot projects if you need more information. There is some stuff on their website as well.

Don McGarry: Are you using Geo-RSS as the only 'loose coupler' to connect these systems? What other data standards are you using to connect disparate systems?

Chris McIntosh: GeoRSS is being used in Virginia because it is the lowest common denominator of interoperability languages. They also are using RES, WMS, WSF, and some KML as well to share information. There are some inherent issues with KML between Google and non-Google platforms that are being worked through, so it’s not one of the preferred, true interoperable languages, but it is one that is in the playbook, so to speak.

Robin Stauffer: How do you obtain your data from the various databases and how do you determine/apply the filter for what data/info is displayed on a specific workstation or certain workstations?

Chris McIntosh: How we obtain the data is we go to different places and say, "help us to help you". We went to the Department of Education in Virginia and said, "We need to know the absenteeism of all the schools in Virginia. We need to know when you close one." The Department of Education didn’t even have a program that allowed them to do that statewide.

When we explained to them that that helps us track your incidents of flu, look for patterns that we can give to you about regional and geographical dispersions of sickness, they said, "That’s a really good idea. So let’s go out and let’s build a program that gathers information from all the local school districts and to a common database and provide an activity at the operations center so that they can put that into VIPER."

We go out and get data based upon the utility and use case of sharing that data with analytical tools such as VIPER. How do we decide what does and doesn’t get shared or displayed? The reporting by exception criteria are actually set by a group of subject matter experts that are brought in that are knowledgeable in each individual type of scenario.

Emergency managers, emergency responders, hazardous materials professionals, health care responders, or whatever the scenario is that they’re working on, the people who know best are brought in to determine what the really pertinent information is that needs to be displayed.

In addition, VIPER is what we called a user-defined operating picture. Each individual person sitting at an individual computer can configure it the way that best suits what they’re trying to do. In the VEOC 17 desks, you have at least 17 different configurations of VIPER sitting on computers in the operations center.

It is infinitely reconfigurable because we recognize that not only do different localities and states and the nation as a whole have a different business needs that they are looking to fulfill, but different individuals have different business needs that they’re trying to fulfill. They need to be able to configure their tool accordingly.

Bryan Field: What is the funding model that the government is using to realize this system?

Chris McIntosh: Funding is, right now, being looked at, being folded into some grants that are out there. That is really to be determined. The one major point that has been made that has implications on the funding is that this is essentially an interoperable communications system. It just happens to be that it’s IP based communications instead of traditional radio.

I’m looking for, in the near future, this to be folded into those interoperability type grants that are available through the Department of Homeland Security as well as other planning and mitigation grants that are out there. If you think about the applicability of these platforms, you can make a case that they fulfill a need in just about every subject area of emergency response and emergency management.

There’s planning, there’s mitigation, there’s training, there’s interoperable communications, even EOC construction has applications here. What we’re looking to start at Virtual USA is not to say, "Here’s a check to build your system for Virtual USA, but here is a range of grants you can compete for from all different areas that will allow you to gain funding for systems like this".

David Coggeshall: Great presentation. We are working on this same approach in the Golden Gate Safety Network much like Virtual Alabama, but on a smaller scale. How do we become a pilot program for FEMA? We would like to produce a Virtual San Francisco Bay Area, including Silicon Valley.

Chris McIntosh: Two avenues I would recommend: go to the DHS CCI website and there are points of contact there for the folks that are doing this there. The other thing is, go to your state and have your state go to your FEMA regional administrator and ask, that you would like to do something maybe across your FEMA region that would gain the interest of coming out and doing a pilot.

The FEMA regions are a convenient vehicle for us to identify a region for a pilot program. If you can get a FEMA region to come out and volunteer as a region, then actually that goes a long way.


Amy Sebring: Time to wrap for today. Thank you very much Chris for an excellent job, and taking the time to share this information with us. We wish you continued success in your future efforts.

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Our next program will be Dec. 9th when our topic will be increasing the return on your exercise and training investment with Dean Larson and Judith Hale. Please plan to join us then.

Thanks to everyone for participating today and for all the excellent questions. Until next time, we stand adjourned. Have a great day and a great Thanksgiving holiday everyone!