After 16 months of development and testing, a public/private security partnership based in Oregon officially activated what is being described as the nation's first fully automated, web-based regional security alert system.
Known as Rains-Net and developed by the Regional Alliances for Infrastructure and Network Security, a partnership of 60 IT suppliers and more than 300 public and private organisations, the system will provide automated alerts from the Portland emergency services to schools, hospitals and downtown corporate building managers.
The secure system will push out to users information in real time concerning emergencies that could affect, for example, all schools or hospitals in a particular area of the city or county. It will also allow reporting of localised emergencies by user organisations, said Charles Jennings, chairman of the Rains alliance.
Before Rains-Net, Jennings said, those responding to an emergency call about a fire, bomb threat or hazardous materials spill had to call the 911 centre back to notify schools in the area.
"Our system consumes the data in the 911 centre automatically through an XML translation engine and then delivers it in a highly targeted and secure way to users," he said.
Jennings added that end users, such as school security officials, receive only information that is pertinent to them and for which they have the security clearance. In addition to automatic pop-up alert windows that appear on a user's PC, the network automatically alerts users via a mobile phone, sending an unsecured notification that they have an emergency message waiting.
"You don't only get the alert; you also get associated rich media," Jennings said. "For example, if the emergency is a hazardous material spill, you will get maps and guidance on what to do."
The network, which started as a pilot project in March, has applications for any national system that the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) might attempt to create.
Jennings and others have already briefed the DHS on the network and obtained federal assistance in setting up and designing Rains-Net so that it is capable of supporting future security requirements.
There are two Rains systems in Oregon and Washington and Rains executives are in discussions with three other states about expanding the network and alliance membership.
"Our nation's security experts have acknowledged the need for a better way to communicate sensitive information and to co-ordinate emergency response, [which is] especially critical in post-9/11 America," said Susan Zevin, acting director of the Information Technology Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
"The Rains-Net approach can serve as a model that could be adopted by cities throughout the nation."
According to Jennings, many other states could replicate the Rains approach for much less than the $5m (£3.2m) initial development price.
Dan Verton writes for Computerworld