Buying power

Flow of federal funds helps states expand homeland security programs.

Their first priority was interoperable communications, but states now are looking to apply the grants they get from the Homeland Security Department to a host of other pressing needs.

After several years of improving first-responder communications, including buying radios, bridging devices and mobile communications vans, some states are ready to make even more specialized IT investments for homeland security.

States and localities are branching out to spend their homeland security grant dollars on IT for information-sharing, geospatial capabilities, intelligence fusion centers, biometrics and situational awareness applications.

Alabama is an example of this trend. "Initially, we were doing a building-blocks approach," said James Walker Jr., homeland security director for Alabama. "Now, we're starting to leverage the technology."

Spending thriftily

Federal grants for homeland security equipment and training have been flowing to states and localities since after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The money has totaled more than $3 billion a year from fiscal 2002 through fiscal 2006, distributed in about half a dozen grant programs. The programs send dollars to states, urban areas, ports and other entities.

For fiscal 2007, Congress this month approved first-responder grants of $3.4 billion, including $770 million for urban areas, $525 million for basic formula grants to states for distribution to localities, $375 million for law enforcement agencies, $210 million for ports and $175 million for rail.

In grant guidance issued in December 2005, DHS recommended improving interoperable communications and information-sharing as top IT priorities. State officials said they are following those guidelines and paying attention to local IT needs.

Perhaps the most visible manifestation of information-sharing at the state level is establishing intelligence fusion centers, which analyze anti-terrorism information from various sources. The National Governors Association polled states earlier this year and found more than 40 are running or developing these facilities.

Alabama has taken a comprehensive approach to homeland security. The state is using federal funds to buy bridging equipment that can patch together disparate first-responder radio systems: Raytheon Co.'s ACU-1000. The state bought the devices for each of its 67 counties, with some needing only a single box, and large counties requiring four or more.

To supplement that effort, Alabama has orchestrated the purchase of four regional communications vans, which can bring to a disaster scene instant streaming video capabilities, satellite communications and additional ACU-1000s for patching together radio communications networks.

"The vans are able to quadruple the capabilities of most counties," Walker said.

Interoperability in Alabama initially focused on enabling agencies in each county to talk with one another. The next stage of interoperability for fiscal 2007 and beyond will be projects to tie regions together, using T-1 lines, voice over IP protocols and supercomputers, Walker said. Details of how those applications will be used are not yet determined, he said.

For information-sharing, Alabama has invested in a system to let its 850 law enforcement agencies share data. Initially, only about 300 agencies participated, but as the program expanded, adding an improved Web portal design and support for cell phones and BlackBerrys, it has grown to encompass 800 of the police agencies, Walker said.

The state also plans to develop an intelligence fusion center to facilitate information-sharing among police, fire, public health, industry, environmental and food authorities, Walker said. The center will bring together experts to analyze and monitor activities for early warnings of criminal and terrorist activity and public health crises.

"It will help us to better connect the dots in Alabama," Walker said.

For overall preparedness and prevention, the state has invested in regional caches of specialized surveillance equipment, such as thermal imaging cameras, robotics and radars, along with search and rescue equipment and other items, which have been distributed regionally, Walker said.

Another homeland security project is "Virtual Alabama," a geographic information system that will organize satellite photographs of the state in a Google Earth application, he said.

Different strokes

Many states are developing similar capabilities. Arkansas finished an interoperable radio investment plan in 2005. Among its IT priorities are surveillance and sensor equipment for critical infrastructure facilities, according to Tina Owens, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Emergency Management Department.

Indiana also has made substantial investments to build an $80 million statewide 800-MHz interoperable communication system for first responders. About a third of the funding has come from federal homeland security grants, said Eric Dietz, executive director of the Indiana Homeland Security Department. Indiana also has bought mobile command and communications vehicles with satellite capabilities, ACU-1000s and a mobile emergency operations center capabilities.

In the works is a common operating picture to track development of a pandemic flu or avian flu outbreak. It's a visualization tool that can accommodate data about humans, wild animals and pets, Dietz said.

In the District of Columbia, homeland security grants are going both to upgrade first-responder radio systems and for a next-generation multijurisdictional wireless broadband capability, said Robert LaGrande, deputy chief technology officer. The regional network will be linked with fiber-optic networks and allow data exchange, he said.

For the upgrade, investments will focus on setting up alarms and capabilities in the Metro mass transit system tunnels, he said.

"A percentage will be invested in wireless broadband, but we still need to invest in our radios," LaGrande said.

Maryland, which also has focused on interoperable communications in recent years, is making a priority of electronic fingerprinting, biometric identification and development of a GIS-enabled common operating picture for situational awareness.

The fingerprinting project has upgraded record checks for hazardous materials drivers and also has enabled state police officers to make criminal record checks from mobile data terminals in their cruisers, said Jim Pettit, spokesman for the governor's Homeland Security Office. In a separate program, Baltimore officials recently tested biometric identification cards for first responders.

Maryland also has an emergency management GIS application that is being connected with databases to create a common operating picture for disaster response and situational awareness.

Staff writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at