The Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC) for Portland, Ore., has begun sending alerts over secure Internet connections to schools and businesses in the vicinity of an emergency. The system, instituted in August, is helping relieve response agencies from the task of notifying schools and businesses located near emergencies, and it is helping recipients make better decisions about the safety of their buildings' occupants.

The Portland BOEC answers all 911 calls that originate in Multnomah County and dispatches fire, law enforcement and emergency medical services throughout the area. Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, a not-for-profit organization of technology companies in Portland known as the Regional Alliances for Infrastructure and Network Security (RAINS) approached BOEC to discuss creating a communications system that would connect a variety of government agencies and improve homeland security. “I thought it was a great idea,” says Carl Simpson, BOEC director. “[RAINS] seemed to have a really good grasp of the technology but [was] struggling with how to implement it in the community.”

About the same time, Simpson participated in the Multnomah County School District's Principal for a Day program and visited an elementary school to observe the principal's activities. During lunch, he saw the principal look out the window to decide whether to allow students outside for recess that afternoon. “That was his sole criteria for making the decision to send our kids out on the playground,” Simpson says. “A while later, I got the principal off to the side and [asked], ‘If you knew there was a chemical fire upwind, would you have made a different decision?’ He said he would have.”

Simpson shared that experience with RAINS, which had developed an operational program called Connect and Protect using its RAINS-Net technology. The program allowed live emergency information from the BOEC's computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system to be sent automatically to cell phones and personal computers of participating organizations, such as schools, city offices and emergency response agencies.

The RAINS-Net technology platform integrates the technologies of RAINS' sponsor companies, including Redlands, Calif.-based ESRI; Beaverton, Ore.-based FORTiX; and Tripwire, Swan Island Networks and Centerlogic, all based in Portland. The application automatically pulls information from the 911 center's CAD system and sends it over an encrypted Internet connection to subscribers near the location of an emergency. To receive the alerts, recipients only need to install the Connect and Protect program software, which is free to schools and available for a monthly fee to businesses.

Besides sending alerts about emergencies nearby, the application provides a Web page with information about the current FBI threat level, homeland security messages, and links to news outlets and weather. It also establishes document libraries on subscribers' computers to store information about procedures to follow in various emergencies. “It puts the documentation right [at] the fingertips of the people who need it most,” Simpson says. “That way, you aren't grabbing and looking for your binder on emergency preparedness [during an event].”

The BOEC began rolling out the communication tool late last summer when one of the Portland school districts became connected. Since then, one other school district has joined, and, soon, the area's other two school districts will be able to access the application. Simpson hopes that the application eventually will connect all the emergency operation centers in the county and state. “I think there needs to be a major mindset change for a lot of law enforcement and 911 people,” Simpson says. “Yes, this information is critical and may be sensitive, but the more people that know this information, the better. We can only make our safety better by sharing the information.”

In its first six months, the system sent 60,000 alerts, which were filtered to recipients depending on their jobs and locations, and reduced the number of 911 calls by concerned residents. “The beauty is we don't get a lot of calls about what's happening,” Simpson says. “Now, we're pumping out a little bit of information, and that goes a long way.”