City to test security software

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  • | 12:00 p.m. January 20, 2004
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by Bradley Parsons

Staff Writer

The City will take a first look today at a software network designed to provide early warning of potential terrorist attacks.

City security officials, computer programmers and emergency responders have worked for months with MIT professor John Donovan to install Donovan’s Protect Hometown America software as one of Jacksonville’s first lines of defense against attack. Mayor’s office spokesperson Heather Murphy said the software recognizes events that fit patterns for terrorist attacks.

“The sheriff’s office might make an arrest that by itself may seem unremarkable, but this system could put that together with a scenario reported by the Jacksonville Port Authority that could signal terrorist activity,” said Murphy. “It puts together these bits of information to give our responders a better picture of what’s going on.”

Although the details of today’s exercise have been kept secret, Murphy said the City’s fire department, homeland security chief and sheriff’s office would feed the system information on a simulated biological terrorist attack. The system is still a work in progress, and Murphy said the results of today’s exercise will guide future development. The exercise will run from 8:30 a.m. to about 1 p.m. in the Emergency Operations Center.

“We’ve finished developing the software, but we’re still in the process of figuring out how the system can best be set up to provide all of our people with the necessary information to respond to these kind of situations,” said Murphy. “We’re still discovering what we need, a big part of that will be determined by what we discover here.”

Similar systems have been used by the military to link seemingly benign events that could signal terrorist activity. The software provides early warning to 20 military bases across the country. Jacksonville’s efforts with Donovan mark the first attempt to employ the same technology for municipal protection.

The software could help mitigate communications shortcomings that the City’s emergency preparedness chief, Chip Patterson, cited as a weakness in preventing attacks. Prior to announcing the joint effort with Donovan, Patterson said the City lacked funding to create effective early–warning infrastructure, largely because the State controlled the Homeland Security purse strings.

“Primarily a city needs technology — communications technology, data–gathering systems, alert and warning systems — to overcome the advantage of secrecy and surprise that a terror group might have. Currently, the way the State is set up, we can’t get the funds to make that happen.”

Donovan provided the software to the City at minimal cost beyond City personnel dedicated to the system’s construction and operation.

Murphy said the system was the next step in Mayor John Peyton’s continued commitment to keeping Jacksonville secure.

“Since the campaign, one of the mayor’s guiding principles has been increasing the public safety structure, and this is an exciting tool to add to that framework,” said Murphy.