October 25, 2003
Bryan Cole, <i>Hullabaloo</i> contributing writer
The next hurricane that hits New Orleans will find the city better prepared to handle it, thanks to members of the Tulane Center for Clinical Effectiveness and Prevention in downtown New Orleans. With the help of a grant from the Department of Justice, doctors William Steinmann and Bruce Bowdish, and Grant Holcomb developed a communications system to allow emergency workers in the city of New Orleans and seven surrounding parishes to remain in contact in the event of an emergency.
"This will provide emergency response capabilities, linking up to 78 agencies," Steinmann said. "It will allow, for the first time, first response teams to talk with one another and share data."
The project was one of 54 submitted to the Department of Justice by similar agencies across the country. The three's project, however, was the only one to extend its reach beyond the city in question and into the surrounding suburbs. In the past, each agency had its own radio equipment, which broadcast on a separate frequency.
"Police and fire don't typically have the same radio and don't broadcast over the same frequency, and it's the same in the other parishes," Bowdish said. "What we did was to digitize [the signals] and make a matrix that will hand them off."
The system allows telephones to communicate with the radio grid as well. "[The grid] uses redundant connectivity ' multiple means of moving stuff," Steinmann said. "If, for example, a cable goes down, we can raise up a line-of-sight laser to shoot to telecommunications tower and hardwire it from there."
In addition, because TCCEP has created its own software for the project, any problems "can be fixed in one hour. We have and share the code with all academic centers," Holcomb said. Though the attacks of Sept. 11 were the impetus behind the project, Steinmann says the system is ready for "whatever hits it," and expects its first true test to be a natural disaster, such as a hurricane. Steinmann warns that, because of the amount of shipping that goes through the city's ports, a chemical spill could also cause the system to become operable.
"We are very vulnerable to disaster not borne by terrorists," he said. "No matter whatever happens where, we can respond." Emergency situations are not the only area affected by the pair's development. The three also anticipate improved communication between doctors and researchers. "We are collaborating with a team in Brazil that wants to track diseases among Amazon Indian tribes to Brazil electrophysiology laboratories with those in the U.S.," Bowdish said. "There are a lot of opportunities."
Steinmann suggested the technology could also digitize operating rooms, allowing doctors across the globe to take an active part in an operation, as well as to improve education and provide conference tools. Because of delays in announcing the funding for the project, official implementation of the system in the New Orleans area has been pushed back to March of 2005. However, a demonstration of the technology is currently being tested.
"We believe once we do the demo, we'll have the infrastructure in place," Steinmann said. "This is already the first step." The project was not only designed by this group, but it was almost entirely implemented by them, as well. "TCCEP is the general contractor from the Department of Justice through the city of New Orleans," Steinmann said. "We will be responsible for acquiring equipment, testing systems, training, evaluating usage almost the entire program, except governance."
New Orleans is not the only city that will benefit from this technology. A similar system is being implemented in Los Angeles to monitor crime. "The Department of Justice has clearly indicated that they see this as not only a regional solution, but a national solution," Steinmann said.
Steinmann and Bowdish had plenty of help designing and implementing their solution. The three specifically single out four Tulane students from the School of Engineering: Michelle Hewitt, Michael Walker, Sean Scott and Nathan Koppes. "They've not only been bright, but germane in research. They helped design the help desk," Steinmann said, describing their contributions to the technical support aspect of the project, which they also assist in running.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org