Think Sept. 11, 2001. A big city high-rise is attacked. There's an explosion and fire.
Emergency crews arrive in minutes. And minutes after that, experts from all over the world – structural engineers specializing in skyscrapers, specialists in airborne toxins, perhaps the building's actual designers – are on the scene.
This isn't a matter of Star Trek-like instant transportation. It's made possible by a mobile, wireless link to a high-powered version of the Internet and a "grid computing" system allowing simultaneous, multisource communications, collaboration and data manipulation over the network.
Global Positioning and Geographic Information system capabilities map the scene precisely. Sensors in and around the building broadcast data related to its condition. The material is fed to "data mining" software that sifts it and may predict, for example, probable locations of victims or an imminent collapse.
Supercomputers attached to the network create visual models of the scene, the better to understand what's happening, which change in real time as new data arrives. They may even turn it into a 3-D virtual reality environment that those managing the crisis can explore from a safe distance.
"This is all possible, the technology exists," said Janet Thot-Thompson, acting executive director of an effort called the Multi-Sector Crisis Management Consortium, being led by the University of Illinois-based National Center for Supercomputing Applications.
OK, maybe it all doesn't work together quite yet, and it is a ways from being a fixture on disaster scenes. Some parts are balky and expensive.
But in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the NCSA and its Washington, D.C., center, where Thot-Thompson is based, used the technology to link officials in Washington and New York, and it has participated since in exercises designed to prepare for future terrorist attacks.
It also helped set up a system to link experts and information with medical facilities in Asia in response to SARS, started a pilot program to test software specially designed for crisis management and contributed to the security precautions for the Super Bowl, among other things.
"We've had more than 300 different organizations participate," Thot-Thompson said of the consortium, whose members fund its operations and include a variety of government agencies, academic research institutions and private companies.
The consortium itself is largely an online entity that functions using the technology. Its monthly meetings are all virtual.
Locally, the NCSA and the consortium this fall hosted a virtual conference on the lessons learned from TOPOFF2, a simulation of terrorist attacks that included the use of biological weapons in Chicago.
Steve Clarkson, Champaign deputy fire chief, found the ability to interact with Homeland Security Department and other officials as if they were in the same room useful.
"If you have a question, you can go right to the source," he said.
Clarkson can see the potential of the technology in the field, too, if not in day-to-day fire and police situations, then in emergencies involving, for instance, hazardous materials.
"It would be fantastic to be able to have the ability to connect with someone who was (an) expert in the chemical we're dealing with," he said.
The NCSA started the crisis-management consortium as one of its efforts to put advanced communications and information technology it helps develop to practical use, in a way that might be particularly beneficial to society in the case of emergency response, said Tom Prudhomme, director of the NCSA's Cybercommunities Division, under which the program falls.
NCSA Director Dan Reed said the consortium fits the NCSA's role as kind of - "a halfway house for technology transfer. There was a recognition that we had basic technologies that were relevant."
At first, the focus was largely on responding to natural disasters. But then 9/11 happened.
"It was a philosophical, intellectual thing before that," Prudhomme said. "The next meeting, there's like 150 people there just looking for anything that might help."
Ultimately, Thot-Thompson said, the idea is to have access centers like NCSA's Washington operation, its center in West Chicago and a new facility that opened this month at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi in every state and nation.
Those would be combined with trailer-mounted and van-sized mobile units that could be dispatched to disaster scenes. Eventually, stripped-down versions of the system should run some features on laptop and handheld computers.
As with almost any program these days, money is an issue. Another is interoperability.
While much of the technology is under way, it doesn't automatically work together, certainly not for purposes of responding to crises.
"All the little parts exist," said Jennifer Banks, the program coordinator who works with Thot-Thompson in Washington, D.C. "We're trying to get them to come together in a machine that works."
You can reach Greg Kline at (217) 351-5215 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.