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Defense launches online system to coordinate Haiti relief efforts

Workers load an Air Force jet with supplies and equipment at March Air Reserve Base in California.Roy Santana/AP

As personnel representing hundreds of government and nongovernment agencies from around the world rush to the aid of earthquake-devastated Haiti, the Defense Information Systems Agency has launched a Web portal with multiple social networking tools to aid in coordinating their efforts.

On Monday, Jean Demay, DISA's technical manager for the agency's Transnational Information Sharing Cooperation project, happened to be at the headquarters of the U.S. Southern Command in Miami preparing for a test of the system in a scenario that involved providing relief to Haiti in the wake of a hurricane. After the earthquake hit on Tuesday, Demay said SOUTHCOM decided to go live with the system. On Wednesday, DISA opened up its All Partners Access Network, supported by the Transnational Information Sharing Cooperation project, to any organization supporting Haiti relief efforts.

The information sharing project, developed with backing from both SOUTHCOM and the Defense Department's European Command, has been in development for three years. It is designed to facilitate multilateral collaboration between federal and nongovernmental agencies.

Demay said that since DISA set up a Haiti Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Community of Interest on APAN on Wednesday, almost 500 organizations and individuals have joined, including a range of Defense units and various nongovernmental organizations and relief groups.

APAN provides a series of collaboration tools, including geographical information systems, wikis, YouTube and MySpace-like pages and multilingual chat rooms.

Meanwhile, other organizations are tackling different technological challenges. Gianluca Bruni, the Dubai-based information technology chief for emergency preparedness and response for the World Food Programme, is setting up networks and systems to support United Nations and nongovernmental organizations in Haiti. WFP already has dispatched two communications kits to Haiti, with satellite systems that operate at 1 megabit per second and can support up to 100 users. It also has sent laptop computers, Wi-Fi access points and long-range point-to-point wireless systems to connect remote users to the satellite terminals. Bruni said eventually WFP plans to set up cyber cafés in Haiti for use all relief workers in the country.

Jon Anderson, a DISA spokesman, said the agency is supplying 10 megabits of satellite capacity to Navy, Marine and Air Force units engaged in the Haiti relief operation.

Many of the relief organizations and agencies in Haiti are bringing their own radio systems to the country. DISA has deployed a three-person team from its Joint Spectrum Management Element to help manage radio frequency spectrum.

The Joint Forces Command's Joint Communications Support Element deployed two teams equipped with satellite systems and VoIP phones to support SOUTCOM in Port-au-Prince late Wednesday. Those systems were operational "in a matter of hours," said JCSE Chief of Staff Chris Wilson. The organization will send another team to Haiti in the next few days.

Wilson said JCSE was able to get its gear into Haiti quickly because the systems already were loaded on pallets in Miami in preparation for an exercise that has been canceled.

So many governments and agencies from around the world have responded to the crisis in Haiti that they have overwhelmed the ability of the Port-au-Prince airport to handle incoming relief flights. The Federal Aviation Administration has had a ground-stop on aircraft headed for Haiti for much of the past two days.

FAA warned in an advisory Friday that "due to limited ramp space at Port-au-Prince airport," with the exception of international cargo flights, "the Haitians are not accepting any aircraft into their airspace."

The advisory added that domestic U.S. military and civilian flights to Haiti must be first be cleared by its command center. Exemptions will be based solely on the basis of ramp space. The agency also starkly warned "there is no available fuel" at the Port-au-Prince airport.

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