9/11 Changed How the U.S. Buys IT

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2011-09-06

9/11 Changed How the U.S. Buys IT

By many accounts, the improvements in technology use by the U.S. government following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have been few, expensive and mostly ineffective. Critics point to airport scanners that travelers hate and that have so far failed to uncover or foil new attacks.

"Most of the innovation that has occurred is in protecting against chemical, biological or radiological attacks," said Ken Rehbehn, principal analyst for the Yankee Group. "But these systems are specialized and are not part of the day-to-day life of the public-safety community. They stand as silent sentinels."

Rehbehn noted that while sensors such as the ones that populate the tops of buildings in Washington, D.C., might help first responders learn the type of attack that took place, they do little to help the critical work that first responders must perform when reacting to an attack.

"The federal government has had trouble keeping up with the rate of change in technology," said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates. The speed of technology change, he contends, has outpaced the government's ability to react during the acquisition process.

Fortunately, the government procurement process is about to change. For example, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is working to bring technological change to the agency at a rate far faster than the years it might require to develop a technology using traditional procurement processes.

Tom Cellucci, acting director of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate's Research and Development partnership group, said the DHS is now working with private industry to speed development of critical technology items.

"We have found that the private sector is an excellent partner, especially in cyber-security and aviation security," Cellucci told eWEEK. He said his group performs outreach to provide guidance about the unsatisfied needs and wants of DHS.


9/11 Changed How the U.S. Buys IT

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Cellucci works with the private sector and points out that his needs and wants have three separate stakeholders: the DHS, the federal government at large and private industry-especially critical infrastructure owners and operators. Once companies know there's a market that's much larger than just the DHS, they respond quickly with technology solutions, he said.

"Technology is a force multiplier," Cellucci explained. "Because of this market opportunity, we are bombarded by high-tech firms that want to help."

Once the required technologies are developed, DHS can buy them directly from vendors. So can the rest of government and private industry with similar needs, Cellucci noted, after the technologies' value has been demonstrated by their use at DHS.

"To get the interest of the private sector, we need to leverage the fact that we have large potential markets," Cellucci said. "Now we share it across government. It's necessary with the reduction of budgets." He noted that by driving interest in developing products for use by the DHS and similar markets, most development takes place without the government having to fund it.

Cellucci added that the DHS has developed a repository that allows people in the department to discover where there are unsatisfied needs and wants. Then the department can scour the market to see if anyone has technology that meets those needs.

An Early Success

One of the first successes of Cellucci's approach was a pilot to analyze explosions involving surface transportation. "The price point was $200" for video equipment that could survive close-range explosions, he said. "We had 29 companies come to us."

Cellucci said the DHS has cooperative R&D documents to review and certify that vendor performance specs are what the company says they are-and are in total alignment with the operational document.

Once the first video prototypes were developed, DHS bought some buses, fitted them with the sensors and blew up the buses. Cellucci said that a blast-resistant video system from Visual Defence met the challenge and is now available to DHS, other government agencies and transportation companies.

The DHS is also working on projects that include a capability for mobile water purification and a communications solution for first responders. Cellucci said there are a number of similar projects in the works that will provide technology solutions more quickly and at lower cost than is available elsewhere in government.

Providing reliable communications for first responders in the aftermath of a large-scale terrorist attack is essential because wireless phone networks are always jammed by people trying to find out what's happening or to contact loved ones who may be in the danger zone.

"We need to bring modern IT communications assistance to people who are mobile, on the street and trying to provide assistance to citizens," said the Yankee Group's Rehbehn.

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