RealTime IT News

Volunteers Wanted For IT National Guard

Calling all technology and science experts. Uncle Sam is looking for volunteers for a new IT National Guard that will be established by the landmark legislation package that creates the Department of Homeland Security. President Bush is expected to sign the bill into law today.

The Science and Technology Emergency Mobilization Act, or NET Guard Act for short, proposes the formation of the National Emergency Technology (NET) Guard, which will consist of rapid response volunteers that stand ready to help restore communications/technology in the event of terrorist attacks.

The idea for an IT National Guard was sparked in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, as communications all over the city and northeast were jammed and cut off after New York's Twin Towers fell, knocking critical phone infrastructure out at the same time. A bill, sponsored by U.S. Senator George Allen (R.-Va.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D.-Ore.), was passed by the Senate in July.

A groundswell of private-sector technology and science experts then tried to provide technology assistance to the rescue and recovery efforts, especially in New York and Washington D.C., but were hampered by a lack of organization of their resources.

In response, the NET Guard bill's purpose is to mobilize technology and science experts to respond quickly to the threats posed by terrorist attacks and other emergencies. In addition to creating a volunteer national emergency technology guard, the bill calls for a technology reliability advisory board, and a center for evaluating antiterrorism and disaster response technology within the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Daniel Hoffman, the chief executive and president of M5, a New York-based managed telecom service company, said he thought the IT National Guard is a good one, though he's not entirely sure how it could help private-sector IT companies.

"It's really up to the service providers to be ready to respond quickly in the event of an emergency," said Hoffman, whose company provides bundled voice and data service to mid-sized and small businesses. "I can't imagine a team of ten federal IT workers coming in to help me restore service" to customers.

That said, Hoffman added, he saw how invaluable the difference that volunteers made when they donated blackberries, cell phones and technical assistance getting small businesses renetworked with internal and external communications in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

"I think it's a terrific idea. Speaking for M5, we would love to help out in the advanced planning to make such a thing happen."

Under the bill's language, within one year of signing the bill, the President is expected to designate an appropriate department, agency, or office to compile and maintain a repository database of nongovernmental technology and science experts who have offered, and who can be mobilized to help federal agencies counter terrorism.

Although the bill is clear about the effort being all-volunteer and generally unpaid, the legislation calls for opportunities for NET Guard volunteers to assist with "non-emergency tasks related to local preparedness and prevention, including reducing the vulnerability of government information technology systems."

The legislation also called for the creation of a national clearinghouse for innovative civilian technologies relating to emergency prevention and response; and a pilot program to assist state efforts to achieve the interoperability of communications systems used by fire, law enforcement, and emergency preparedness and response agencies.

If members of the volunteer team are formally asked to assist in response work, the bill calls for per diem payment of travel and transportation expenses, as compensation.

Andrew Rasiej, CEO of New York-based Digital Club Network, was among the private sector groups to organize support for the legislation among technology companies.

"Like everybody else, I was completely frustrated watching (the events of Sept. 11) unfold without any ability to use my skills to help," he said at the time of the bill's creation a year ago. Even those who could help were thwarted right away because communications were impacted by the collapse of the World Trade Center. Rasiej made the suggestion to Wyden in a written proposal and the Senator brought the idea to congressional leaders.

One reason the bill gained support of government emergency agencies, organizers said, is because of outdated communications systems among local emergency offices and the lack of interoperability among communications systems that was laid bare in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

"Efforts to develop and deploy innovative new technologies for use by government emergency prevention and response agencies would be improved by the designation of a clear contact point within the Federal Government for intake and evaluation of technology ideas," the bill said.

The bill calls for the creation of compatible communications systems that would strengthen emergency response efforts of police, fire, and other emergency response personnel to help them communicate effectively with each other and with other jurisdictions.

"Some programs, such as the Capital Wireless Integrated Network (CapWIN), have made significant progress in addressing the issue of interoperable communications between emergency service providers," the bill continued. In addition, the federal government is trying to address the issue through its Public Safety Wireless Networks program.

The NET Guard bill also called for the head of the department, agency or office in which the NET Guard program is established to make $5 million worth of grants to help get pilot programs for the IT National Guard up and running in seven pilot locations.