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Digital Tools Employed to Test Response to Simulated Disaster

By John Markoff


It began with a worldwide virus outbreak that had cities under quarantine, emergency workers overwhelmed and government agencies unable to cope. It was compounded by a wave of cyberterror attacks that cut off power, phones and Internet access.

Such was the crisis that teams from the Pentagon, nongovernmental agencies and several dozen technology companies set out to resolve in a five-day simulation meant to showcase and test a new set of digital tools in responding to disaster.

The limitations of even the latest technology were in evidence when an effort to restore communications by setting up ad hoc wireless networks resulted in a three-day data traffic jam.

Yet the problems encountered in the training effort, named Strong Angel III, did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the participants, a diverse group of more than 800 “first responders,” military officers and software and wireless network experts — some from rivals like Microsoft and Google, working side by side.

“My view is that the value of Strong Angel is 70 percent in the social networks that will be created,” said the organizer, Eric Rasmussen, a Navy surgeon and veteran of relief efforts on several continents. “What we do is try to bring people with disparate backgrounds together and ensure that they are forced to enter into a conversation.”

More than $35 million in equipment was assembled here as part of the event, aimed at preparing for natural disasters, epidemics, terrorist attacks or the aftermath of war.

Last Monday, the group began to assemble a makeshift command center at an abandoned building near the San Diego airport. But a state-of-the-art wireless network, intended to route video images, satellite map coordinates and other data — from an impressive array of mobile computers, software analysis tools and command programs — failed to come to life.

“Finally I said, ‘Lights out! Everyone turn everything off and let’s start over,”’ said Brian D. Steckler, a computer scientist at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who was in charge of more than a dozen interlocking networks at the heart of the command center.

Hundreds of computers and even cell phones were shut down, and then the network was slowly turned back on, segment by segment. Too many high-bandwidth applications had clogged the network, including a powerful video camera and “rogue” transmitters set up by participants intent on creating their own mini-networks.