Oregon emergency system helps deploy responders - from police to mall guards

As security director for Oregon's largest shopping center, Mark Hanson frequently checks his computer for alerts in the neighborhood. When it's something like minor car trouble on a freeway exit, he doesn't need to worry. But then, one alert flashes on-screen about a fire near the Lloyd Center Mall.

He springs into action: His 22-person staff diverts mall traffic and helps provide a staging area for the fire department.

Mr. Hanson is part of a growing network of public-safety responders in Oregon who are using a new Web-based technology to respond to emergencies.

"When something pops up on my computer, I know I can look at it very quickly and assess the situation and know where our people need to go - what needs to happen," says Hanson.

Called RAINS, for Regional Alliances for Infrastructure and Network Security, this public-private coalition takes a bottom-up approach to emergency-response communications - an approach quite different from the more centralized federal system.

Supporters say RAINS helps crucial, time-sensitive reports flow more efficiently, though still securely, to different public-safety agencies, which potentially produces quicker and more effective responses. And the information-sharing system is quickly gaining more supporters: A number of communities across the United States are considering using the network's technology platform as well.

"One of the most difficult nuts to crack since 9/11 is how to share relevant information," writes Stephen Flynn, author of "America the Vulnerable" and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, in an e-mail. "Despite major reorganization efforts in Washington, even federal agencies aren't routinely talking with each other.... The top-down approach to information sharing simply will not work, which is why efforts such as RAINS are so important."

Despite praise from homeland security experts, RAINS still encounters institutional resistance because of the reluctance to share information and hook up the technology. For example, the Portland police department has not linked to the system.

So far, RAINS links 250 users in nine Oregon counties, ranging from the Portland mayor's office to hotel managers and private security firms to law enforcement. The system aggregates incident alerts from 911 call centers, law enforcement, transportation agencies, and others, and reformats each event as a digital alert. These alerts are then sent to users via the Web, cellphones, and pagers.

Even though RAINS has a high-tech orientation, the alliance still promotes old-fashioned, face-to-face social networking.

"This whole effort is based on building from the ground up," says Chuck Kisselburg, RAINS's program manager, who helps arrange annual RAINS meetings. He also helps match and build community groups in Portland.

One person who has appreciated the system's features is Jeff Snyder, Multnomah County's manager for the parole and probation office. He's responsible for monitoring some 10,000 people, including sex offenders and other ex-convicts.

Although some information about sex offenders cannot be made public, Mr. Snyder can alert certain authorities - such as school principals - when an individual has been released from prison or poses a threat. RAINS's technology platform allows him to send out alerts that cannot be copied, stored, or printed.

"It gives us the ability to select who is going to see this information and make sure it does not go to someone who does not have a need to know," says Snyder.

Users of the network can also tailor the type of information they wish to receive - a potentially important feature, given the possibility of information overload. Alerts can be filtered according to type, severity, or geographical location.

Mr. Kisselburg adds that other types of organizations could be included in the emergency-response network.

"Take a look at the after-report from [hurricane] Katrina. Basically, a lot of people were going to churches to see if they had word of what was going on," he says. "Well, why not have churches be a part of something like this?"

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