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Gasparilla parade also a homeland security drill

Several agencies testing high-tech tools used the mass event as training in dealing with terrorism or disasters.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published February 1, 2006


TAMPA - As half a million revelers played like tipsy bead-throwing pirates during Saturday's Gasparilla parade, local law enforcement officers used the annual event to test out four federally funded antiterrorism and disaster response technologies.

Helicopters patrolled with digital, GPS-guided maps and downloaded aerial pictures to officers on the ground.

Officers patrolling the 3.5-mile parade route used handheld PDAs, or personal digital assistants, to log arrests, traffic problems and medical emergencies. They transmitted the data to the Tampa Convention Center, where authorities tracked it all and deployed officers and equipment accordingly.

Law enforcement, emergency management and other agencies in Tampa, Clearwater, St. Petersburg, and unincorporated Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have been using some of the technologies since 2003, thanks to nearly $23-million from the Homeland Security Department.

But Gasparilla marked the first time all four programs were used to plan and manage a massive event that is also a potential terrorist target.

Mayor Pam Iorio and other local, state and federal officials on Tuesday declared the exercise a success - one they hope to repeat for events like the St. Petersburg Grand Prix and the 2009 Super Bowl, and during hurricanes or other disasters.

"It really makes this area so much better prepared, not only for a terrorist attack, but for a natural disaster," Iorio said. "The money has been well spent."

Assistant Tampa police Chief Jane Castor said the area's landmarks - the Port of Tampa, MacDill Air Force Base, bridges like the Sunshine Skyway and the Howard Frankland - make it a logical candidate for homeland security money.

"We have a lot of critical infrastructure that makes us a potential target for a terrorist attack," said Castor.

That's why the various agencies banded together in 2003 as the Tampa Bay Urban Security Initiative, a metropolitan group eligible for federal security money.

Between 2003 and 2005, the initiative received $22.6-million, said Castor, its chairwoman.

That money paid for the four technologies used Saturday:

E-Sponder, a Web-based portal that allows police, fire and medical care agencies to plan and coordinate resources during a major event or disaster. Before the parade, authorities assigned tasks for code enforcement, police, parks and recreation, and so on. They created plans for emergencies, and during the parade they tracked all arrests, medical emergencies and other incidents. They recorded how much time officers spent dealing with incidents, and how much overtime they incurred. Then they evaluated their performance.

Site Profiler, a tool that helps agencies respond quickly to threats against things like agriculture, dams, government and public entertainment venues. If the state learns of a general threat against banks, Tampa Bay agencies could use Site Profiler to determine which local banks are the most vulnerable and how best to respond. During the parade, officers had a three-dimensional model of what a car bomb along the Crosstown Expressway would do to downtown buildings.

CopLink, dubbed "Google for law enforcement," is an interactive search engine that taps into data from multiple agencies. Police officers in Tampa can search through arrest reports and traffic citations of the Pinellas Sheriff's Office to find suspects and leads.

Avalex, a digital mapping and photo system for aircraft, allows pilots to take pictures of disaster zones. It provides them with topography maps, marine charts and street maps for all of Florida. It also features a split-screen of live and file photos, so they can compare how an area looked before a hurricane or bomb.

Kerry Thomas, director of national preparedness programs for the grants and training office of the Homeland Security Department, said Tampa Bay is the first area in the country to use all four technologies in such a comprehensive way.

"If you're using these technologies on a daily basis," Castor said, "everyone is familiar with it and there's no learning curve when an incident occurs."

Meanwhile, local authorities are still waiting to hear how much homeland security money they'll get for 2006. Castor has said the area needs a better communications system to link agencies in Pinellas and Hillsborough during a disaster such as a hurricane.

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3373 or svansickler@sptimes.com

[Last modified February 1, 2006, 01:02:08]


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