Center Simulates Homeland Security

February 2004
By Robert K. Ackerman
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Operators in the public safety integration center, or PSIC, at SAIC assume key roles in homeland security threat scenario. The large screen can display maps or representations of a screen that would be viewed by a dispatch center. The smaller desktop monitors display situational information in both list and map graphic form.

Engineers and responders can trial technologies and practices.

A commercial homeland security test facility is serving as a proving ground for systems and processes for all levels of government responders. It features hardware and software from dozens of companies as well as potential crisis scenarios developed by government officials.

Two functions dominate this facility’s role. One is to demonstrate how technologies and processes can be integrated horizontally to serve homeland security needs. The other function is to test procedures for emergency responses in potential crises. The facility can focus on multiple levels of official activities, ranging from those of a municipal fire chief all the way up to those of the commander of the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM).

Known as the public safety integration center, or PSIC, the facility, located in McLean, Virginia, was developed and is operated by SAIC, San Diego, California. It permits commercial or government customers to test their new systems in an environment that simulates interoperability with other systems. Similarly, a technology can be tested in the context of an event scenario. Or, officials can evaluate how their procedures will work amid all the variables—technology, policy, logistics and demographics—that come into play in a crisis. The center’s philosophy is to find answers to homeland security challenges beyond point solutions, relates Wally Kaine, senior vice president for homeland security at SAIC.

The center represents “a significant investment” in both funds and personnel time, Kaine says. From its beginnings in 2002, the center evolved from a facility for systems engineering into a homeland security complex. Fully operational since mid-2003, it encompasses technology, business rules, policy, different elements of government and other multidisciplinary issues.

“The intent is to not have PowerPoint demonstrations, but to bring in companies working together in a public-private partnership,” Kaine declares.

Robert I. Desourdis Jr., vice president/principal engineer for the center, uses an analogy of buying a house. “You don’t sell someone a house by taking them to a warehouse hardware store and saying, ‘the wood is over there, the glass is over there, the appliances are over here—you can have any house you want.’ Our job is to understand the problem and bring together the best value solution from whatever technologies are out there.”

The lead element demonstrated for a customer is how its designated systems can be integrated quickly, says Ted Manakas, vice president for corporate development with the national security/emergency preparedness integrated solutions group at SAIC. The center uses legacy, commercial and government off-the-shelf hardware and software to provide a valid solution. Often, SAIC experts are aided in this integration by people from the companies that manufacture the various systems. Once integration is achieved, then the newly integrated equipment is set up for scenario work in the center.

More than 100 companies currently are associated with the PSIC in some form, either in providing hardware or software or in lending expertise during scenarios. Many firms lend hardware to the center for use even when they are not directly involved in a scenario generation. Desourdis offers that, in these cases, the companies get to expose their products to other companies that—and officials who— come to the center. Many of the active products are competitors.

“Not only do you have the ability to tie and integrate the technologies, but also you have thousands of domain initiatives and expertise in all of those [homeland security] areas at the center,” Manakas says. “We have set it up as a testbed for deriving solutions in simulated—or even  emulated—environments.”

The center can integrate a computer-aided dispatch system with telephony, land-mobile radio and wireless communications. This system is based on the Intergraph dispatch decision support system that the Washington, D.C., Police; Washington, D.C., Fire Department; Naval District Washington; and U.S. Capitol Police own to manage their first responders in the field. It is integrated with an area security operations command and control toolkit that NORTHCOM is operationalizing to provide a counterterrorism collaboration capability across the breadth of the U.S. Defense Department.

Other tools for intelligence and analysis help predict blast and atmospheric plume effects. Tools in the incident management center correlate information coming from different sources, especially those with different tools—which can be expected from the diverse nature of emergency responders across the nation.

Project 25 radio systems from Motorola and M/A-COM can be tied with a Nextel mobile radio for push-to-talk communications through direct-connect and land-mobile radios. Desourdis adds that the center is working on an ongoing plan to develop a mandatory digital intersystem interface for all wireless systems. When a user hits push-to-talk on one system, the signal that will activate corresponding security and priority talk groups in other systems will be standardized with no intellectual property rights.

While the PSIC focuses on physical hardware integration and experimentation, it can simulate radios to a limited degree. Audio interfaces enable generating simulated traffic that can be brought into the center. Various switching equipment also allows generation of many different scenarios. Placing a microphone/speaker device on a switch can simulate a radio call on a push-to-talk basis.

Manakas explains that the center focuses on six key areas. The first—collaboration—entails developing strategy, planning, alerting, training, exercising and responding. The second category—access control—focuses on fully interoperable detection and response, including biometrics. This also involves the integration that takes place for these functions. The third category is intelligence and surveillance, and this activity involves threat monitoring and attack prediction. It may include various threat detectors as well as biological and chemical sensors.


A key element of the PSIC is its systems integration laboratory. Customers bring their hardware and software to the laboratory for integration into a scenario. Many companies have lent their homeland security and emergency response equipment to the laboratory for use in other customers' scenarios.

The fourth category is vulnerability and consequence assessment. This work comprises understanding risks, forecasting threats and anticipating responses, and it may include dispersion modeling. The fifth category is interoperable incident management, which involves unifying the entire response activity from on-scene participants to state and federal responders. It features an emergency operations center and a common relevant operating picture. The last category is public safety communications, which can involve systems, programs and technological interoperability.

Manakas offers that the last category is the biggest challenge that the center addresses. This area encompasses the vital homeland security task of finding a way to connect a local emergency responder’s radio to other communications systems. He states that the center has made considerable improvements in the interoperability of these technologies.

“It’s not just about technology—its about processes, from policy all the way to technology,” he declares.

Two main areas form the core of the facility. One is a laboratory area that handles system integration. Customers bring in hardware and software to this area for integration into the center. The components then function in the scenarios that are enacted in the main area that constitutes the center.

For example, officials from a seaport may need to integrate cargo screening procedures and technologies, command and control for collaborative counterterrorism forces, weapons of mass destruction incident response teams, local emergency responder radio systems, security training and exercises, and incident managers.

Desourdis cites as an example the head of a port security force who came to the PSIC to seek advice on how to handle a difficult scenario. His concern was how to respond if radiation is detected from a shipping container already offloaded. He did not have a mandate for actions such as evacuating the port, urging a citywide evacuation or contacting any of a number of local, state and federal authorities. Not only could the center work out methodologies for him, but its enterprise architecture capability also could show him how to assign specific duties to individual personnel, Desourdis says.

Some of the center’s hardware and software have been developed for the military, and this equipment is used to establish a common operating picture. When a scenario includes a range of possible participants from high-ranking officials down to local authorities, customers can see the common operating picture evolve, Kaine says. This can be key toward understanding how processes and regulations affect procedures. “The technology is one thing,” he allows. “[The issue is] how do you operate within each of those contexts—their business model—and allow them to pass on information?”

Higher ranking officials, such as the NORTHCOM commander or the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), might count on a scenario to view processes that encompass a range of different participants. A lower-echelon official such as a city fire chief could learn how to ensure the right level of interoperability on demand.

The center also can portray the two roles that could be played by the U.S. National Guard. In an emergency, the Guard might serve as a bridge between a governor and either the Department of Homeland Security or NORTHCOM, depending on the nature of the emergency. Both roles can be simulated in a scenario generation, Kaine relates.

The center employs several different scenarios based on potential users such as the intelligence and maritime security communities. One scenario is adapted from the one currently being used in the enterprise architecture for the Department of Homeland Security. More scenarios are under development as customers provide additional input.

In one scenario, for example, a sniper is hidden in a grassy field. Humans cannot see the sniper, but emergency responders will use advanced technologies that can reveal the shooter’s presence. Participants in the simulation can see how the sniper can be located by a system that detects where the grass has shifted position by comparing existing data on how the grass moves with the wind. An aberration in that grass movement pinpoints the location of the sniper.

Another more detailed scenario, based on government homeland security activities, deals with the discovery of a suspicious package on a table inside a building. This discovery will require the notification of several different authorities, and their arrival must be marked by close coordination as they deal with what might be an explosive device. In this PSIC scenario, center personnel serve in several roles to provide a human element.

When the package is discovered, a camera isolates it, and a local security guard is directed to call 911. The dispatch center acknowledges the call, and a database records that an event has been reported. Information on the event is entered, and the rule-based system directs the dispatcher to send an appropriately equipped unit. The display system reports the unit’s status—en route—while the dispatcher consults a government guidance resource that provides an activity checklist for that specific incident.

The dispatcher then uses a land line to call a government analysis center and report the suspicious package incident. The analyst is patched at his or her request directly to the on-scene commander. This patch connects a land-line call, which did not originate from the end party, to a land-mobile radio. The on-scene commander is able to describe the package to the analyst, who is able to query that person on actions taken. At the request of the analyst, a Washington, D.C., emergency management office is added to the call through a Nextel connection.

Subsequent steps would build on this networked verbal communication by adding information to an incident master system. This would enable a number of involved parties to access vital information without having to repeatedly query personnel through telephone hookups. Officials could follow developments digitally step-by-step, and they could listen to active communications from those who are responding to the incident.

Other scenarios for port security and airport security are under development. The same tools can be brought together for a variety of different security solutions, Desourdis observes. “There is no reason to reinvent the wheel every time,” he warrants.

With homeland security still a recently developed discipline, customers largely tend to use the center to find or try out a potential solution rather than to solve a problem. Kaine observes that many customers facing a homeland security challenge are seeking a thought process for how to respond to that challenge. Once they begin to take part in a PSIC scenario, their emphasis shifts to specific problem-solving scenarios.

The center includes the automated exercise assessment system that the National Guard has made available to every county in the United States. This is a weapons-of-mass-destruction simulator that can play as many as 40 different public safety disciplines, Desourdis says. The PSIC is working to use it as a driver for a mock emergency operations center (EOC). The goal is for it to become an EOC simulator that allows practicing different policies and procedures using the center’s available tools.

Several government organizations have used the PSIC or are negotiating to use it, Desourdis allows. Users include the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Seattle, the Fort Belvoir Night Vision Laboratories and the Naval Research Laboratory.

The next step is to take the center on the road without it ever leaving its physical facility. Company experts are working on a virtual PSIC concept that would allow users outside of the center to exploit its capabilities. Desourdis likens this approach to a trade show that the company would push out to other locations using networks and videoconferences. “You will be able to see this in other locations,” he predicts.

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