Creating a Knowledge-Based First-Responder Force

May 2002
By Patrick S. Guarnieri

Web-enabled techniques help prepare reaction to weapons of mass destruction.

Before September 11, only a few brave organizations were dedicated to authorizing and funding programs to test advanced technologies for state and federal disaster first responders and train key personnel in their use. For scenarios involving weapons of mass destruction, even fewer offered unclassified-level training in the skills and technology needed by law enforcement and health care personnel. Among those few are the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s Homeland Defense Technology Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico; the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, Washington, D.C.; and the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Socorro. In times of crisis, it has been their experts who arrived on the scene toting a combination of “Men in Black” suitcase technology and advanced supercomputing capabilities to assist the nation’s first responders.

The terrorist attacks and subsequent anthrax incidents, however, quickly brought attention to the critical need for first responders, including health care professionals, to be trained in the use of specialized information, communication and coordination technologies. To address this pressing requirement, several government, military and industry organizations have joined forces to prepare emergency response professionals to deal with erupting crises immediately instead of waiting for the men with the suitcases to arrive.

Dr. Eileen M. Preisser, a professor at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, is one of the key players in this arena. A congressional fellow on science and technology applicable to national security, she was appointed this year as director of the Air Force Homeland Defense Technology Center. Her role, as she describes it, is “to help prepare American cities for possible terrorist attacks and give them the tools and education required to perform consequence management before any national agency arrives on the scene.”

Since September, a large portion of Preisser’s time has been spent working with Congress and groups from the Executive Office of the President to make U.S. Defense Department command, control, communications, computers, intelligence and coordination technologies available to first responders throughout the United States, Canada and NATO. “My methods are effective, but I knock over ricebowls. I’ve been called everything on Capitol Hill from Xena Warrior Princess to Joan of Arc,” the former Air Force special activities officer says.

Her partners in this mission are C.H. “Butch” Strauv II, program director, Office of National Defense Preparedness within the Office of Justice Programs, and Dr. Van Romero, president, National Domestic Preparedness Consortium, an organization sanctioned by the Office of Justice Programs. The consortium prepares firefighters, law enforcement professionals, medical and other emergency personnel to respond to acts of chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological terrorism. Strauv and Romero facilitate Preisser’s access to law enforcement and emergency medical services personnel, firefighters, public works professionals and mayors from around the country as well as to the university-accredited courses that give structure to the technical training offered online and in the classroom. The consortium already has trained and supported more than one million first responders in the United States, NATO and Canada. Since last September, it has trained approximately 100,000 personnel at strategically located sites across the United States.

Romero and Preisser endeavor to engage anyone and everyone on the threats facing the nation, and they are experts on the topic. “We used to think terrorism wouldn’t happen in the United States, but it has. It cannot be overemphasized that we in the United States are ill prepared for terrorism at home. We cannot train people fast enough. There is a six-month waiting list to get into the consortium’s on-site courses,” Romero notes.

Preisser agrees that the need for training is great. “Time is of the essence here. We have to find better ways to educate, train, support and exercise our first responders on a nationwide basis. Using the Web to offer accredited distance learning and preparing the same courses so they can be tailored for execution at conventions as part of professional continuing education is a logical extension of our work.”

This self-organized partnership recently created a valuable asset for first responders—the Collaborative Engagement Complex, which was built to house a portal system and facilitate collaborative engagement to support the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium in its mission.

The core of the new complex is the RESPOND! architecture, which uses the GENESIS technology Preisser developed in association with a major U.S. defense contractor. Other partners are being brought into this project from within the Defense Department and the civilian sector. The software is used to create threat profiles and terrorism vulnerability assessments for cities, companies or sites anywhere in the country. It not only handles text but also is being augmented to handle audio, video, signals and sensor data, which can be streamed to the responders upon request to track and follow a specific situation. The RESPOND! portal helps create a knowledge-based first-responder force.

RESPOND! will allow for training online and in conference environments on topics such as explosives, hazardous materials, urban search and rescue, weapons of mass destruction (WMD) incident management, public works emergencies and unified command protocols. It uses new Web-based knowledge assessment tools to help instructors create randomly generated digital exams. WebKat and Learning Framework provide secure testing formats for Web-based instruction as well as for tracking students’ grades and progress.

RESPOND! technology creates a knowledge environment where multiple users can interact for education, exercise, training or information sharing. The system assigns first responders passwords and log-on identifications that allow them to send e-mail, enter community-of-interest chat rooms and use the first response white pages to locate a colleague or expert. They can use the technology to do a city-threat assessment using massive data mining and information patterning online. During a crisis, they also will be able to work through the portal on secure lines to connect and collaborate with multiple colleagues anywhere in America.

The technology operates in Windows environments, allowing for the use of audio, video, white boarding, still photography or mapping annotations.

“The RESPOND! architecture is new technology for the first responder that builds upon what was originally Defense Department technology for anti-terrorism and counterterrorism. We call this tech transfer, and it is the fastest way to get advanced technology into the hands of the first responders,” Preisser explains.

According to Strauv, a lot of available technology can be used. Most was developed originally under Justice Department programs that support the consortium. The programs, which cost approximately $100 million annually, provide equipment and training to respond to and manage domestic terrorism safely. The program’s advantage for local municipalities is that first responders normally do not pay for their training if they register with the Office of Justice Programs first. “It’s one of the few benefits of being a hero,” Romero says.

“I think the real travesty to date,” Preisser says, “is that I am not currently training any Defense Department people in these courses, not even reservists. We do not have policies and mechanisms established that allow us to train military personnel as we do civilians in the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium. There is a big fear of many in the Pentagon of military overreach. We have not figured out that the military can help significantly in training and equipping first responders without violating posse comitatus laws.

“What needs to happen is that key professional specialty codes in the active-duty military, the Reserve and National Guard must be identified as first-responder equivalents so they can take and benefit from this WMD consequence management training. One of my key goals for this year is to develop policy and mechanisms to get reserve Department of Defense personnel—who are often on the scene as first responders—trained and educated in the first-responder protocols we are teaching in the consortium. If I can do this with online courses and convention and seminar exposure, so be it. But we have to move out on this. It’s important to all Americans.”

“Eventually,” Preisser continues, “we want to give first responders wearable interface access and smart card technology as well.” Such technology will drastically revamp the way firefighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians and physicians do business across multiple states and municipalities.


Patrick S. Guarnieri is the chief executive officer of the National Conference on Homeland Security. The not-for-profit organization educates, trains and shares information with first responders on issues associated with terrorist incidents involving weapons of mass destruction.

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