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A Little Compassion Can Go a Long Way

Except for the guy in the next cubicle wearing headphones and singing along with Neil Diamond, engineers are generally a compassionate lot. They like to pitch in and help out when bad things happen to good people. After the complete and total devastation of Greensburg, Kansas, by an F5 tornado, for instance, engineers stepped forward and are helping rebuild the town with everything from "green" engineered homes to county-wide wireless Internet access and more.

But responding to disasters like the Greensburg tornado or Hurricane Katrina takes time to get the right people with the right expertise to where they can do the most good the fastest. Which is why Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and George Allen (R-Va.) introduced legislation for the National Emergency Technology Guard ("NETGuard," for short), which would create a national pool of science and technology volunteer experts available in the event of disasters. The bill was made part of the legislation authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and was signed into law. That's the good news. The bad news is that Senators Wyden and Allen introduced the bill in March 2002, and it was signed into law in November of that year. And what has happened in the interim? Nothing. Nada. Zip. No NETGuard, no pool of expert volunteers.

Until now. Within the last month or so, the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency has finally announced it would provide $320,000 to fund a pilot NETGuard program. According to Senator Wyden, NETGuard is modeled on the Medical Reserve Corp (, which is made up of civilian doctors and nurses who provide volunteer medical services in national emergencies. In the case of NETGuard, volunteers with expertise in telecommunications, Internet technologies, and network infrastructures, could be rushed to places like Greensburg or New Orleans when disasters occur.

Of course, there are details that need to be worked out; hence, the "pilot program" approach. Certification, for instance. How do we know if someone is really an expert as claimed? Do we need some kind of formal certification put in place? Do volunteers need to pass a test? Granted, a lot of employers already "certify" their employees as experts in this or that technology, and presumably that would be enough. But what about consultants or retirees who don't have employers?

Then there are concerns, industrial and otherwise. If a volunteer expert happens to be an AT&T employee, does, say, Verizon really want a competitor's employee poking around in its infrastructure? And since the Department of Homeland Security is involved, you can bet there's other types of security screening in the offing too, although presumably individual companies are already screening employees who work in sensitive areas.

For its part, the Department of Homeland Security sees NETGuard as a "DHS-led initiative that will bring together the public sector with the State and local community following an incident that affects information systems and communications networks," adding that "the program also could act as a clearinghouse for matching the needs of the local government and businesses with available resources in a timely manner." Timely manner? Considering that it took the Department of Homeland Secuirty five years to get to the pilot program stage, there's something that the department needs to work on.

All in all, NETGuard is part of what's called the National Infrastructure Protection Plan (, which is designed to set national priorities, goals, and requirements for "effective distribution of funding and resources which will help ensure that our government, economy, and public services continue in the event of a terrorist attack or other disaster." (Recent headline on CNN: "Supplies for Katrina Victims Went to Mississippi Agencies: Prisons in Mississippi got coffee makers, pillowcases and dinnerware—all intended for victims of Hurricane Katrina...But the Mississippi hurricane victims who originally were intended to receive the supplies got nothing.")

Hmmm, maybe the Department of Homeland Security did us a favor by dragging its feet for the past five years. At times like these, even FEMA's former leader Michael "Brownie, You're Doing a Heck of a Job" Brown looks good.

In the meantime, here's hoping that NETGuard gets off the ground and past the pilot program. It's a great idea whose time has come.

Jonathan Erickson


[email protected]

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