After 16 months of development and testing, a public/private security partnership based in Oregon Wednesday officially activated what is being described as the USA'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 vendors and more than 300 public and private organizations, the system will provide automated alerts from the Portland 911 center to schools, hospitals and downtown corporate building managers.
The secure system will in real time push out to users information 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 localized emergencies by user organizations, said Charles Jennings, chairman of the RAINS alliance.
Before RAINS-Net, Jennings said, those responding to a 911 call about a fire, bomb threat or hazardous materials spill had to call the 911 center back in order to notify schools in the area. "Our system consumes the data in the 911 center automatically through an Extensible Markup Language 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 that they have the security clearance for. In addition to automatic pop-up alert windows that appear on a user's PC, the network automatically alerts users via cell 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 hazmat 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 U.S. 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's capable of supporting future homeland security requirements.
There are currently two RAINS chapters, in Oregon and Washington. However, RAINS executives are in discussions with three other states about expanding the network and alliance membership, Jennings said.
"Our nation's security experts have acknowledged the need for a better way to communicate sensitive information and to coordinate 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 US$5 million initial development price -- a bargain, he said, given the payoff. However, RAINS-Net in Oregon is the result of a $60,000 state grant, thousands of hours of volunteer software development work, and technologies donated by big IT companies that are based in Oregon or have a major presence there, including Intel. RAINS was not only an effort to develop a security network, but also an economic initiative designed to reinvigorate Oregon's economy, Jennings said.