Virtual City: a Cost-effective Approach to Information Sharing for More Secure Borders

October 5, 2011

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In the years since 9/11, securing the U.S.-Canadian border has become a critical issue, with security often hampered by a lack of coordination among the many government agencies involved on both sides of the border.

A potential solution has recently been implemented in the Great Lakes region: a portal that consolidates emergency response information from many sources in a shared geographic context. Built with Visual Fusion from IDV Solutions, the application provides first responders and emergency managers with a tool that they are using both to plan for potential disasters and to respond to day-to-day events.

The “Virtual City” application provides a cost-effective model that could be replicated to improve public safety along the length of the border and elsewhere.

A region on the front lines
Despite increased awareness of the issue, only 32 miles of the 4,000-mile border were considered acceptably secure by the U.S. Border Patrol last year. Border security is a particularly urgent concern in the Great Lakes region, where smugglers, drug traffickers or potential terrorists could cross the border by small boat, low-flying plane or even snowmobile when waterways freeze. Within the Great Lakes area, a key location is the Blue Water Region, centered on the cities of Port Huron, Michigan and Sarnia, Ontario.

“We’re a community with high-risk, critical infrastructure,” said Jeff Friedland, emergency management coordinator for Michigan’s St. Clair County, which lies at the heart of this region. He cited the international border crossing at the Blue Water Bridge, a rail port, and numerous petrochemical refineries and water treatment plants. The area is the primary entry point for carriers of hazardous materials between the United States and Canada.

The Blue Water Bridge is one of the busiest crossing points on the U.S.-Canadian border. (Image courtesy of the Michigan Department of Transportation Photography Unit)

In this region, many agencies are responsible for different aspects of security and emergency response, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Canada Border Services Agency, the Michigan State Police, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, multiple sheriff’s departments, and local police, fire and emergency medical services.

Each agency sets procedures and makes technology decisions independently, so security data were fragmented among different software systems, databases, spreadsheets, documents and even three-ring binders in different locations. Much of this information was unavailable to partner agencies, and when agencies did share data, those data were often incomplete or not timely. Emergency personnel found it difficult to see any situation as a cohesive whole.

Pulling it all together
With these challenges in mind, the Department of Homeland Security chose Michigan’s St. Clair County as the pilot site for Virtual City, a project meant to test the usefulness of GIS technology in law enforcement and public safety.

Visual Fusion from IDV Solutions was chosen as the platform for an application that would provide a common operating picture to all participating agencies. The software offered the partner agencies a way to connect their diverse systems and data in a shared, Web-based view.

“It’s a great product,” Herbert Engle, the DHS manager for the project told the St. Clair County Board of Commissioners in October 2010.  “The IDV products are scalable, affordable and easy to use.”

Only four months later, the multi-agency portal, dubbed Blue Water Area REsILIeNT (REgional InteroperabiLIty Collaboration NeTwork), was implemented.

Today, multiple agencies use REsILIeNT to share many types of information, including:

  • incident reports from 911 systems
  • real-time webcam feeds
  • locations and contact data for first responders (fire, police, EMS and U.S. and Canadian Coast Guard stations)
  • regionally available resources (hazmat teams, dive teams, bomb squads, K-9 units)
  • potentially vulnerable infrastructure ( hospitals, schools, water treatment and power plants)
  • locations and contact data for township halls
  • public transit routes and air traffic
  • medical services of all kinds
  • construction companies and other owners of heavy equipment
  • locations of especially vulnerable populations, including child care centers, nursing homes and facilities for special needs individuals

Putting it in context
To view all this shared information, users log in to a secure Web connection. Visual Fusion displays the data on a map and timeline, accompanied by a list of layers that users can turn on or off as needed. This geographic and chronological presentation makes clear the relationships between the many elements.

For example, in the event of a chemical spill, emergency managers could quickly see which are the nearest first responders and medical facilities. By drawing a buffer around the spill location, they could discover whether the affected area contains any schools or water treatment plants; then turn on a weather layer to determine whether wind or rain might hamper their response.

Similarly, displaying 911 incidents on the map and timeline allows investigators to see patterns that might be missed in a report.

Public safety agencies use the REsILIeNT portal to share information, locate responders, visualize scenarios and work together on coordinated responses. (Click for larger view.)

By clicking on an item on the map or timeline, a user can open additional panels of information and images, drilling down to the level of detail needed. Permissions configured in the software ensure that users in each role see only what they are authorized to see.

Emergency planners are using the system as a “digital whiteboard” to visualize possible scenarios and work together on potential responses. The common interface provides tools for this type of collaboration; a user can add a feed to the map by simply entering a Web address, or draw areas of concern directly on the map for other users to see.

The interface has proved easy and intuitive for busy public safety professionals. “We haven’t needed a manual. They pick it up without any training,” said St. Clair’s Friedland.

In addition, to the agencies’ own data, REsILIeNT displays live outside feeds for weather, lake conditions, earthquakes and air traffic. Other feeds can be added as needed.

Having immediate access to all these data makes a real difference, Friedland said. “The incident commander having at his fingertips the resources available, and knowing what’s going on in other parts of the county, enables him to make the right decisions at the scene.”

Users can add icons and draw shapes on the common map to communicate response plans to partners in other agencies.

Cost-effective sustainability
For public safety agencies, seeking to maximize budgets and manpower, the maintainability has been as important as the interface.

“From the first discussion we had (with DHS), I said it’s got to be affordable, not just for at-purchase, but for costs down the road,” said Friedland. “It has to be sustainable for governments at the county and city level.”

To achieve this sustainability, the agencies involved with REsILIeNT make extensive use of the SharePoint content management software, which is highly integrated with Visual Fusion. Users need little training to enter information into SharePoint’s forms-based interface, Friedland said. And as long as the user enters a valid address for each item, Visual Fusion automatically retrieves the location’s latitude and longitude coordinates and adds it to the map and timeline. Thus, agency staff can input and maintain the data without relying on overburdened IT or GIS departments. This puts participation in reach for local agencies working with restricted budgets.

For its schools, St Clair has gone one step further, uploading floor plans, photos and locations of alarms, water mains and gas shut-off valves into SharePoint libraries. In the event of a school emergency, all of these images are available from within the map interface.

REsILIeNT consumes data in many formats, so that the participating agencies can continue to use their existing equipment and data repositories without conversion or time-consuming data exchanges. For example, for webcams and data coming from St. Clair County’s GIS system, users enter links into special SharePoint lists created through Visual Fusion. Camera locations appear on the map and real-time video feeds display in pop-up windows. Similarly, data from the county’s Visionair 911 incident management system are connected through an entry in a Visual Fusion configuration file.

A tool for daily operations and extraordinary events
While border security and counterterrorism were primary drivers in the system’s creation, the user agencies have also thoroughly integrated it into their daily operations. In a recent incident, a St. Clair resident reported smelling natural gas from an unknown source. Previously, the hunt for a potentially dangerous gas leak would have required St. Clair fire personnel to search door-to-door in a large area, a procedure that could consume several hours. Instead, by using REsILIeNT to view the location of the report, prevailing weather and potential sources of the gas, the fire department was able to quickly narrow the search area and locate the leak in a fraction of the time.

 “Too many times we develop something waiting for the big event and it sits on a shelf,” said Friedland. “Then when it’s time for the big event — if it ever happens — you pull it off the shelf and then scratch your head for a couple of hours saying, ‘How do we use this? I don’t remember.’ If you develop something that can be used every day, then you’re all set.”

Weather, lake conditions and air traffic are among the Web feeds agencies have incorporated into the portal to add context to their own data. (Click for larger view.)

Looking to the future
The technology behind the portal is scalable and extensible. Users add new feeds as their needs dictate, and additional functionality has been added in each project phase without reworking the existing architecture. The core software, Visual Fusion, is built on a widely used framework and integrates with many Web standards and popular data formats, allowing for future, currently unforeseen development.

In project phases to come, REsILIeNT will be linked to additional systems, like the Critical Infrastructure Management System. Although use is currently restricted to emergency personnel, Friedland said he envisions a version of the system for residents in the future.

“You could use it for parks and other county services,” he said. “It has tremendous expansion potential.”

The program is providing a real-life laboratory for developing and evaluating technology that could be used to improve security anywhere along our borders. In addition, the technology and accompanying procedures can be replicated to promote public safety anywhere in the country at a reasonable cost.

Ed. note: A webinar on this topic will take place Oct. 13.


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