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When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 07:46 AM EDT

If you have any doubts about the direction Massachusetts is following in requiring open standards for all government documents, consider what happened when Hurricane Katrina knocked out almost all communications except the Internet. Cell phones and walkie talkies failed, once again, just as they did in 9/11, as David Kirkpatrick tells us in an article in Fortune:
In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, much of the region’s communication systems failed or didn’t work properly. Water and wind knocked out power, toppled phone lines, and destroyed cellphone towers. What systems remained were quickly overwhelmed. When rescue workers’ did have working equipment, like walkie-talkies, they often couldn’t connect with others on different communication systems.

Catch that? "On different communication systems." The same thing happened after the tsunami disaster in Thailand, as a report just released by the ePolicy Group reports:

"Responding agencies and nongovernmental groups are unable to share information vital to the rescue effort," the report recalls of the government in Thailand in the tsunami's immediate aftermath. "Each uses different data and document formats. Relief is slowed; coordination is complicated. The need for common, open standards for disaster management was never more stark or compelling."

Isn't it time, after so much suffering, to recognize that keeping people alive is more important than allowing private companies to lock in customers into proprietary systems that don't then work in an emergency? And why does the Internet always work, no matter who you are or what operating system you use? Because it was built, not on proprietary standards, but entirely on open standards. That's why you can send an email to me, even if you are using Microsoft Outlook. I don't run any Microsoft products currently, but because of open standards, I can still read your email, and in an emergency, we will not be disconnected because we are on "different communication systems."

Now, you can't leave decisions like that up to private companies. They will always try to lock us into their little garden, where you can call anyone for free, for example, as long as they sign up for the same cell phone service you use. When I went to visit a relative last year with my cell phone, I found out that my service didn't work in that entire state. Something is really wrong with that.

In an emergency, it could cost us our lives not to be able to rely on standards in communications. Similarly, being able to communicate with our governmental agencies, no matter what operating system we use, is essential. It's like the air we breathe, so essential that you simply can't plan to be without it. The fact that FEMA required victims of Hurricane Katrina to only use Microsoft IE in order to sign up for relief services is a national shame. It's like saying that millions of people don't matter, that the government should just let them fend for themselves. We saw in New Orleans what happens when people have to just fend for themselves, did we not?

You can read about the efforts of tech companies like Google, Sun, Microsoft and IBM to aid the victims of Katrina in the Fortune article, but one thing is worthy of note in particular. There are discussions between the government and companies about how to be better prepared next time and particularly how to set up the Internet to be a primary communications system for emergencies. Note what Microsoft is proposing:

Many industry executives are already talking about how to insure a less ad hoc response to the next disaster. For instance, Microsoft’s Markezich says the industry needs to develop common standards using the XML language (which enables software applications to interoperate), so information can be shared across sites in an emergency.

Jonathan Schwartz, president of Sun Microsystems, agrees with Markezich, but adds one serious caveat: “We ought to agree on a set of standards through which the government and private agencies can provide emergency services, but in no case should a company name be attached to those services.” Schwartz was alarmed this week when FEMA announced that online applications for Federal Disaster Assistance would only be accepted from victims who use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser. “I’d hate to see a day when one company would have to be paid before relief could come to a community,” he says.

Schwartz says he’d like to see industry-wide standards so that the Internet can have similar capabilities as the 911 emergency telephone number. Even a cellphone user without a service contract can dial 911 in the U.S. to get help, he points out. “We need to take a close look at whether some of that should be applied to the Internet,” Schwartz says.

Microsoft's XML is a problem. It's part of the controversy in Massachusetts, as they explained when announcing their format choices. For example, in the section on XML, Massachusetts said, "To insure maximum interoperability, it is recommended that proprietary extensions to any XML specifications be avoided." Microsoft refuses to use the XML everyone else has agreed to use. That's the problem. They want us to adopt their proprietary extensions, patents and all, instead. Why would that be in the public's best interest? Can anyone seriously argue that maximum interoperability isn't the proper goal? If it is the right goal, then Microsoft's proprietary version of XML can't be the right choice. It's really that simple.

And note Microsoft's attitude to OpenDocument format, the other part of the controversy: they won't agree to support the standard everyone else has agreed to either. You can read Microsoft's letter [PDF] to Massachusetts along with letters from other companies on the Massachusetts website. We'll be writing about this in more detail, answering Microsoft point by point, but for now, I'll just point out that it's there, so you can get started. Your comments will be helpful too in what we end up writing, so feel free to answer their letter in your comments. You might like to read Wikipedia on OpenDocument for some refreshing counterarguments to Microsoft's assertions in their ugly and menacing letter. The introduction reads like this:

OpenDocument, short for the OASIS Open Document Format for Office Applications, is an open document file format for saving and exchanging editable office documents such as text documents (such as memos, reports, and books), spreadsheets, charts, and presentations. This standard was developed by the OASISconsortium, based upon the XML-based file format originally created by

The standard was publicly developed by a variety of organizations, is publicly accessible, and can be implemented by anyone without restriction. The OpenDocument format is intended to provide an open alternative to proprietary document formats including the popular DOC, XLS, and PPT formats used by Microsoft Office, as well as Microsoft Office Open XML format (this latter format has various licensing requirements that forbid some competitors using it). Organizations and individuals that store their data in an open format avoid being locked in to a single software vendor, leaving them free to switch software if their current vendor goes out of business or changes their software or licensing terms to something less favorable.

While it may not bother Microsoft to have everyone required to buy and use their products in a disaster or to be able to communicate in an emergency, it bothers me a great deal, because I don't use their products. I don't trust their products to work reliably, for one thing. I heard on the news that the FEMA servers kept crashing. And I don't wish to be forced to use any one company's products, period. I'd be one of the dead bodies they find two weeks later, I'm afraid, because I won't be able to communicate, to let people know to come and rescue me.

Microsoft's answer to that is that I should just use their products. Monopolies always want everyone to have to have to use their products. Why wouldn't they want that? It's their bread and butter. Microsoft has spent a great deal of money and effort to kill off its competition, so we'd be left with no choice but to use their products. GNU/Linux and Apple are still standing, however. And millions of us prefer to use their operating systems instead. If my life depends on it, and I have to choose between those three operating systems, I wouldn't choose Microsoft. The Department of Defense uses Linux and Apple, and I want to too.

It is the role of government to protect the lives and property of citizens, to look after us. Didn't you feel that deeply when watching Katrina's aftermath? If governments don't play that role, then it's just every man for himself, and while the human spirit is more reliably kind than corporations or governments, as we've witnessed, the truth is that some things are too big for individuals to handle on their own. So we can be so grateful to those who built the Internet for us, that they chose not to make a bundle for themselves by patenting every bit of it and them balkanizing it into proprietary fiefdoms, but gave thought to creating a fail-safe communications system, something you can rely on no matter what. And it worked. Of course, it was the government that did that. I shudder to think what Microsoft would have done, if it had invented the Internet. Every bit of it would be patented, and we'd all be paying through the nose and would be restricted to whatever Microsoft chose to let us do.

Now, it would like to be the toll booth that all citizens must pay to communicate, and specifically to communicate with the government. They refuse to support standards like the OASIS OpenDocument format that Massachusetts has chosen to ensure open communication with all citizens not only today but for generations to come. Why? Isn't it obvious?

Schwartz notes something else of interest:

For all the corporate efforts, Schwartz points out that in many ways the most useful services for victims and evacuees are bubbling up organically from below, thanks to the work of individuals and small groups using the Internet. For instance, Craigslist became a key tool to find loved ones and services in many cities affected by Katrina. Volunteers started gathering up abandoned pets in New Orleans and started a site with photos online for owners to come claim them. And The Open House Project, started by three venture capitalists in Nashville, is coordinating offers of housing nationwide with Katrina victims who need it.

“Thank God the network was there,” says Schwartz, “and for Craigslist, and for the networks that survived. The tech community was there to help make up for the inability of the government to recognize that there was a crisis.”

Those ad hoc citizen relief efforts were more useful than the government precisely because of open standards. Anyone, no matter what operating system they were using, could use Craigslist. The same isn't true for FEMA's site. So, people flocked to sites like Craigslist to find one another. The only reason they could do that is because the Internet it built on open standards. If Microsoft is successful in persuading the powers that be to establish emergency communications based on their proprietary XML, it will shut out millions of people. That is too big a price to pay. And there is no reason why Microsoft can't follow the same XML standards as the rest of the world. They may feel it is in their best interest to have proprietary extensions on XML, patented to boot, but it isn't in the public's best interest to be forced to use it, and frankly, why would any government wish to reinforce a monopoly's monopoly position? How is that good for the marketplace? For that matter, how does it build faith and respect for the law?

Microsoft complains in its letter that Massachusetts first said it would accept Microsoft as an "open" format, based on it being a kind of ad hoc standard, in the sense that a lot of people use Microsoft. But the change in Massachusetts' policy resulted from listening to comments from the public. That really is what happened. Should Massachusetts *not* listen to its citizens, after asking for their comments? Really. Think about that seriously. All Microsoft has to do is support OpenDocument and the same XML everyone else wants to use. That's it. You tell me why they won't. Give me one good reason.

Microsoft has a lot of money already, you know. Let's not let it become blood money.


When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor | 263 comments | Create New Account
Comments belong to whoever posts them. Please notify us of inappropriate comments.
When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
Authored by: TerryC on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 07:58 AM EDT
PJ. This is a really powerful argument for open standards.

How do we widen the audience beyond Groklaw amd a few tech sites?


[ Reply to This | # ]

Korrektions heer pleeze!
Authored by: tiger99 on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 08:02 AM EDT

[ Reply to This | # ]

OIff Topic here please.
Authored by: tiger99 on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 08:05 AM EDT
Please do remember to use HTML format, and make clickable links where

[ Reply to This | # ]

When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
Authored by: eviltwin on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 08:24 AM EDT
The FEMA website problem may not seem like a big deal to most people. I run
only Linux systems in my house. I also live seven blocks off the beach in Long
Beach, MS. It's a big deal to me. We've got to continue to make our voice
heard in government to make sure that these kind of things don't continue to
happen. Keep up the good work PJ.

Evil Twin

[ Reply to This | # ]

Authored by: tiger99 on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 08:30 AM EDT
.... this might be PJ's most important article so far. The world does not really depend on a bunch of SCOundrels in Utah, although the original purpose of Groklaw, in exposing a serious misuse of the legal system, was fully justified, and no doubt will continue until the SCOundrels are in jail. But the world does depend vitally on communications that work.

During the recent terrorist outrage in London, it was found, yet again, that there was serious incompatability between the radio systems used by the various emergency services, and only the train operator, London Underground, had any kind of communication in the tunnels. This is now being dealt with, but the problem had been known since the Kings Cross fire quite some time ago, which as it happens was due to a combination of ignorance and bad management, and killed over twice as many people as the terrorists.

But similar stories are to be found elsewere too.

None of this concerns the internet or open document formats directly, but it does show what can happen when there is no, or very poor, communication.

Perversely, due to its huge scale, the internet is he very easiest thing to fix, because everything connected to it speaks TCP/IP. The infrastructure is fine, although there will be the need soon to move to IPV6, it is merely at the OS and application level that problems exist. And it seems to be only Monopoly software that has the problems. Every other OS that I know of can read and write at least some "foreign" file systems for example. But when did you last see a Monopoly OS being able to read an ext3 or Reiser disk, for example? Yet Koffice, Ooo/Star Office, Abiword, soon WordPerfect, and other lesser known products can interoperate successfully. It is M$ that are the odd one out.

The whole problem is not only enhancing risk in a disaster scenario, but it is directly and indirectly costing lots of people lots of money in going about their daily activities. It really does need positive action at government level (the US and EU would be quite sufficient, much of the rest of the world is getting the point anyway, the others would follow for practical reasons) to end this nonsense.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Privatize FEMA
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 08:30 AM EDT

Yes, a letter writer to my local newspaper actually advocated this. He said
Katrina was proof that government can't do anythng right. This is the party

He didn't say if this private agency would take VISA, or what would happen if we
didn't have one. Or if it would be a subscription model. If we can't pay, does
that mean we don't get rescued? Do we have to provide proof of good standing
before the helicopter airlifts us out? Will there be a surcharge for using the
service beyond the base subscription, like an insurance company?

[ Reply to This | # ]

Where have i read this MS letter style already?
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 08:34 AM EDT
Yes, in SCO motions!

[ Reply to This | # ]

When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 08:35 AM EDT
PJ, this really needs to be published by the major media outlets. It needs broad
exposure. It really gets to the heart of the matter. Open standards are key.
Society doesn't work smoothly when people and systems can't communicate with
each other. Its criminal that cellphones don't share a common infrastructure.
There should also be priority service for emergency calls. The cell phone
network should be part of the relief effort, not an ineffective waste of

FEMA is being showed for what it really is. On one hand it shocks me to find out
that they rely on any MS technology at all. On the other hand, looking at their
results it doesn't surprise me. MS technology has no place in any situation
where lives are at stake.

FEMA talks the talk. It doesn't walk the walk. When the Military was committed
to the effort, relief came quickly. The DOD knows how to move people and supples
and get things done. Its in their DNA. FEMA should really be part of DOD for a
while until they figure out how to work effectively in a crisis.

BTW, FEMA is not alone in its love of MS. The USPS website now pretty much
requires IE.

philc (didn't login)

[ Reply to This | # ]

When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
Authored by: pfusco on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 08:38 AM EDT
GNU/Linux and Apple are still standing

But, doesnt M$ own a sizable share of Apple... much like they own a good sixed chunck of Corel?

If they kill off Apple, they lose a not so small amount of $$$$$$

only the soul matters in the end

[ Reply to This | # ]

When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 08:39 AM EDT
The worse thing about the FEMA fiasco and Microsofts holier than thou attitude
is that people, innocent people, could well die because of this. A US Government
agency letting its own citizens die because they dont use Microsoft software..
I'd hate to be the person who has to answer to any Congressional committee on
this matter.


[ Reply to This | # ]

Emergency Communications and Open Standards
Authored by: Israel Pattison on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 08:42 AM EDT

Our entire system of telecommunications regulation is based on the botched communications during another disaster -- the Titanic accident. Because different ships' radio rooms were operated by different companies and refused to interoperate, hours were wasted waiting for help to arrive. This led to the Federal Communications Act of 1913 which created the FCC.

During that time and now one group of "open source" operators, Amateur Radio Operators, relayed emergency traffic using their own equipment and expertise. The similarities to the Amateur Radio Service and Open Source Software are hard to miss.

But even ninety-two years isn't enough time to convince proprietary companies that open standards are key to human interaction. In response to a WSJ article from just over a week ago a spokesperson for the Motorola field service team had this to say about "ham" radio operators:

"Something is better than nothing, that's right," says Jim Screeden, who runs all of Motorola's repair teams in the field for its emergency-response business. "But ham radios are pretty close to nothing." Mr. Screeden says ham radios can take a long time to relay messages and work essentially as "party lines," with multiple parties talking at once.

Story after story of life-saving humanitarian communication from the Gulf states by ham radio operators clearly repudiate Mr. Screeden's comments. But in a manner similar to Microsoft's letter to MA, he short-changes ham radio equipment based on 1950's technology. In fact, most ham radio operators today operate with radios that have the same or more features than the same Motorola equipment that is failing so miserably in the Katrina recovery.

Here's a real life situation unfolding where open standards are saving lives. Here's a company built on proprietary methods decrying the inadequacy of technology built on open standards, while their own communications network fails. I hope governments like MA are paying attention.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Netcraft reports..
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 08:52 AM EDT
...that FEMA is running on Linux & Apache:(


[ Reply to This | # ]

Making Open Standards Really Matter
Authored by: BobDowling on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 09:10 AM EDT

Let me make a prediction about the FEMA website: It was written by a contractor rather than by a dedicated in house web team.

I'm making this prediction based on my experiences with websites written in house and those contracted out. The latter are more likely than the former to be put together on the cheap by a group of idiots who have done basic courses in FrontPage and Dreamweaver and who have set themselves up as a Web Design Shop. These people are frauds. In my hypothesized example of FEMA they are dangerous frauds.

My experiences with government websites are mostly UK-based, that being where I live, rather than USA-based, but I imagine the principle holds over there too.

Is there no scope for a federal requirement on its contractors regarding the quality of the web sites they create? In the UK academic sector where I work we have SENDA (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Act?) which mandates that data we provide must be accessible to a very wide variety of potential students. Requiring web pages to work through braille terminals or screen readers brings the OTT web designers down to earth with a bump.

[ Reply to This | # ]

When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 09:30 AM EDT
Enough said!!!

Now if we could get the moron so called IT jounalists to push for more open
standards and stop siding with the crap companies and start siding with the

Great article pj - I hope other journalists follow along with businesses. I
think it is time we had a document format that anybody can read no matter what
product we buy or don't buy.

[ Reply to This | # ]

When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 09:42 AM EDT
I think it is just cruel and mean that they require IE6 to get relief. Who was
the moron that did this and does he even have a concious. I would recommend
he/she get a new job.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Internet Reliability
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 09:45 AM EDT
While the internet's being built on open source software is important to it's
survivability, it's also the underlying design that's important. If one site
goes down, connections can be routed around that missing site (generally
automatically) and still get to the destination if it's still alive. This was a
major design goal from the start - surviving a hostile attack on network

These days, there's not really an internet backbone - there's a whole cloud of
connections, at least in the US. Short of a catastrophic event of continental
scale (the late hurricane still only affected a small region directly), I'd not
expect internet to fail.

[ Reply to This | # ]

When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 09:54 AM EDT
What is even more retarded is that fema runs linux and yet they require ie6 to
do a form.

they probably are using frontpage extensions - and that is what was crashing the
box -

that's like using linux and putting microsoft media files on the server.

get a clue people - somebody needs a hit from the clue stick.

[ Reply to This | # ]

When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 09:56 AM EDT
Unfortunately, in the US, we live in a success oriented society. Terrible
things are never in out foresight.
Those who have served in the military, police, or
as a firefighter know differently. You always plan for the
worse because as soon as you become reliant on certain
specific things, you loose. Murphy's Law may be a joke to some but it can be as
real as death.

Reliance on open standards helps mitigate this problem
because everyone can participate; no one is excluded
unless they choose so themselves

Sadly, it is only those at the working level who realize these
things. The top level decision makers who never get dirty
or who have never had to deal personally with the effects
of their decisions seem to be only interested in
furthering their careers because that is all they can see.

I'll leave the politics out of this but the US is surely
going down the hill to destruction unless this attitude
changes. We have had several wakeup calls but I haven't
see many significant attitude changes in the people who
can make major differences.

As far as M$ goes, if M$ knowingly allows the use of
their products in a system that can effect human life,
(mass trans, hospital, power, etc) M$ should be held
totally responsible for any damages regardless of their cop-out EULA because $$$
is their only concern, not
safety, not society, not anybody but themselves.


[ Reply to This | # ]

Sahana: An Open Source Response to Emergency Response
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 09:56 AM EDT
As a sort of aside. Is the growlaw community aware of
the Sahana project?

"Sahana Phase 1 was successfully used by the Center for National
Operations[CNO] and the Center for Humanitarian Agencies[CHA] in Sri Lanka in
the aftermath of the Tsunami. It helped to track 25,000 families, and nearly all
organizations involved, and the Organization Registry was highly

Or as seen in the press:
(bottom of the page)

[ Reply to This | # ]

When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
Authored by: ThrPilgrim on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 10:00 AM EDT
Before September 2nd 1666, there where many diffrent fire insuriers in London.
If your house was on fire and the fire engion that turned up belonged to a
diffrent company, then tougth.

This is the equivelent of haveing incompatable standerds.

Why that date? Well that was the date a small fire started in Pudding Lane
enveloped the entire city.

All the fire engions where called out by the city corperation.

After that date the the diffrent insurance companies fire departments where
brought together under the banner of the London Fire Brigade.

Now we have one standerd approch.

[ Reply to This | # ]

A few thoughts...
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 10:03 AM EDT
Jeez, PJ, you covered a lot here. Just a few thoughts on some of what you posted:

``They want us to adopt their proprietary extensions, patents and all, instead. Why would that be in the public's best interest? Can anyone seriously argue that maximum interoperability isn't the proper goal?''

Oh but they are interested in maximum interoperability!

  • Maximum interoperability between Word and Excel.
  • Maximum interoperability between Excel and Powerpoint
  • Maximum interoperability between Excel and MS-SQL
  • (you get the picture :-) )

As far as the Microsoft ``extensions'' in their document format: Any document format that includes any sort of DRM capabilities ought to be disqualified from consideration for use as a format for any government-maintained documentation. End of discussion. The public should not have to deal with the hassle of DRM in their dealings with government agencies. Consider what a hassle it already is to deal with them without any sort of access control on the process. Who, besides certain large corporations, think it's the right thing for us to have to jump through an additional hoop in order to access the public information maintined by the government? (And lest anyone think I'm picking only on Microsoft, I have serious misgivings about Oracle's plans as well.)

``You can read Microsoft's letter [PDF] to Massachusetts''

Hypocrites! If the Microsoft format is so superior, why resort to something inferior like PDF? :-)

``I shudder to think what Microsoft would have done, if it had invented the Internet. Every bit of it would be patented, and we'd all be paying through the nose and would be restricted to whatever Microsoft chose to let us do.''

Other old-timers will remember the costly nightmare that was IBM's communications protocols. Remember the ``LU'' licensing problem? Want to transfer files between systems? That a separate license. Want to send a print job to another system? Sorry, you don't have a license for that. (begin{aside}This was back when IBM was still pushing SNA as the end-all-be-all networking protocol. I can recall a presentation where an IBM representative made some snide comment along the lines of ``and, for those who made the mistake of adopting TCP/IP as their networking protocol, we now...''. At that point, half the room got up and left.end{aside})

Now imagine a company like Microsoft that cannot stand not being the biggest dog in whatever market they think they can make a buck in. We'd be paying for an HTTP CAL, an lpd CAL, an FTP CAL, an SMB CAL.

``Anyone, no matter what operating system they were using, could use Craigslist. The same isn't true for FEMA's site.''

The most surprising thing about all these reported problems is that there is, supposedly, a Federal law that is supposed to ensure that web sites (and, I think, other forms of communication) are accessible to handicapped folks. (This is a requirement, if memory serves, for any companies doing business with the Feds. Someone please correct me if I'm wrong about this point.) There are a lot of blind people, for example, that use screenscraping software that passes the text to a speech synthesizer. One has to wonder how many of these whiz-bang Federal web sites that were/are being designed with only IE in mind would pass muster under this law. It would not surprise me, though, to find that Federal web sites are exempt from the law.


[ Reply to This | # ]

When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
Authored by: PJP on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 10:25 AM EDT
There is more to this than open standards - although, that does play into the
equation too.

The core of the problem is the American fixation on productivity - doing more
with less, and the desire of the leaders of various public services to hide
their activities from the prying eyes of the general public.

The first problem is best described as follows: In times gone by, the police
were there to, as their name implies, police the laws of the land. (Look up
"police" in a decent dictionary if you are not certain what it means).
There has been a shift from "policing" to "enforcing" the
law, and along with that shift a move to taking away the the initiative from the
policeman on patrol to a more "command and control" structure. The
main advantage of this is that you can do more with less - at least in theory,
moving manpower around as situations require.

Of course, this pre-supposes three things which are now firmly embeded in the
urban police systems across America:

1: Fast movement of resources. Theoretically, this is available because no
policeman now patrols on foot, but in a car. Police can now be usefully employed
in revenue generation (traffic tickets) and pulled off as the situation
dictates. The problem here is that even under normal circumstances re-deployment
of resources can be muc slower than is desirable. Add in some abnormal
circumstances such as 9/11 or Katrina and that rapid re-deployment just doesn't

2: High-bandwidth communications. Police officer have very little discretion in
reality, they go where they are told, and do what they are told. the command and
control system requires that the control center knows exactly where each
resource is, what it is doing, and what the priority level is. The old systems
with a shared repeater or two covering a whole city didn't give the
communications bandwidth required, and also had the disadvantage (from the point
of view of the managers) that everyone pretty much knew what everyone else was
doing -- and that by monitoring these repeaters with a cheap scanner, so did the
general public. The answer was to go high-tech, using communications systems
multiplexing multiple communications channels over a single channel - trunked
systems. These rely on statistical multiplexing of communications - if the
traffic builds up beyond the built-in assumptions, these systems can collapse --
and have done so. An added benefit of these systems was assumed to be that joe
public couldn't listen in. Joe Public actually sued, and the courts agreed that
they did have the right. The response was to ensure that the scanners programmed
to listen to these systems were available, but with multi-thousand dollar price
tags. This is an area where standardization would be good, where the comms.
systems manufacturers and emergency systems management could not lock out
monitoring by pricing it out of the hands of Joe Public.

3: The command and control systems are designed to do more with less. Again,
basically statistically multiplexing the resources (cops) to deal with incidents
as they occur. When the rate of incidents increases beyond a certain point, the
system doesn't work. There are not enough cops to go around, and those that
there are are relying upon communications systems which overload, or which
vanish along with the power. The high-tech communications devices are useless in
themselves, they require the high-tech infrastructure to be able to work.

Add to all of this the original point about the systems from different
manufacturers using different (incompatible) technologies and the result is
predictably what we see every time.

Common standards would definately help, but the real answer is to take a long
hard look at the way policing is done in America today. Doing more with less may
reduce your taxes by a few dollars, but the result is also that the system is
much more fragile, and the system shifts from policing to enforcement, with all
that that entails - SWAT teams, automatic weapons in every police car and a
prevalent JBT mentality way too prevalent.


Sorry about going off topic, but I think its important to see that in this case
(as well as many others) open standards IS important, but its not the whole
answer, it is much more often just a component of a more fundamental system
level change that may be required.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Good article but...
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 10:49 AM EDT
Has anyone thought of adding the consequences of Microsoft DRM to this mess? In
an emergency, "Who do you trust?" boils down to anyone you can
contact! Knowing the mess that proprietary formats create now, who is mandating
that the DRM switch have an "Emergency" position?

[ Reply to This | # ]

  • Good article but... - Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 12:53 PM EDT
  • No one - Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 04:51 PM EDT
    • No one - Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 07:48 PM EDT
When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 10:54 AM EDT
As an Army communicator for years, I can understand the issues of
interoperability with the communications systems coming from all across the
country. There's the issue of frequency management so that equipment can work at
the same time without interference. You have different frequency bands that the
various systems work at. Newer 900Mhz systems won't work with older equipment.
It gets more interesting when you start talking about frequency hopping systems
and 2.4Ghz wireless networking. Did you know that cell phones will interfere
with Police communications? MD had that problem where the Cell provider had to
swap frequencies with Emergency management so both systems will work.
At least in the Military, if you have dissimilar comms networks you have a
single node where the Laision officers will have access to both systems or you
have special repeaters that can interface with both.
The bottom line is bringing communications systems together is not an easy task.
I have the lack of hair, colored grey to prove it...

[ Reply to This | # ]

When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
Authored by: dwheeler on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 11:07 AM EDT
For a brief commentary on Microsoft's talking points, see Massac husetts Back-Room

[ Reply to This | # ]

When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 11:21 AM EDT
Great article. So refreshing to see people (PJ & the Community) willing to
spend time and effort to publicly articulate what so many of us feel. Groklaw
definitely balances my perspective and helps me to make measured arguments based
on common sense :o)

[ Reply to This | # ]

fema crashes
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 11:54 AM EDT
I don't know what system FEMA has, but it is unrelated to what clients its
website requires.
A simple server overload can freeze any system, it doesn't matter what OS it

[ Reply to This | # ]

Communication Systems and Open Standards
Authored by: lstandage on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 12:25 PM EDT
Overall, PJ, an excellent article. IMHO, though, the communication systems analogy needs a little refinement.

In past jobs I've worked on military radio systems, and it's given me an appreciation for the complexity of communications systems. I think the issue isn't interoperability per se, but interoperability during major emergency situations.

See, the problem is that the electromagnetic spectrum is a finite resource. This comes in two flavors. The first is that you can divide the spectrum down only so far before you either lose quality because the channel is too narrow, or you get interference because the channels are too close together.

The second issue is the sharing of a channel. Your cell phone doesn't have a single radio frequency all to itself, it must share that frequency (and sometimes a few others) with other customers on the network. The algorithms used to decide which phone has access to what frequency at what times (and for how long) are very sophisticated. If you have too many phones trying to access a particular channel, someone is going to lose out, or else everyone will suffer poor audio quality.

Military radios have special requirements in order to provide secure communications. These requirements are kept secret in order to prevent the enemy from learning how to break our communication techniques and harming our soldiers. Simply using public/private encryption keys, such as is used for secure email and web traffic, is insufficient.

Yes, we saw the effects from 9/11 and Katrina what can happen when the first responders can't talk to each other. But I think in the course of "normal", everyday emergencies they rarely need to hear each other's radio traffic. They want to hear what is important for them to hear, and little else.

During major emergencies, though, the situation changes. Part of Katrina's problem was that people didn't know who was in charge (federal?, state?, local?). So I think we need to establish the hierarchy of command when catastrophies occur. Then we need to establish how that hierarchy will communicate, and how they will get orders and instructions out to those who are on the ground. Those procedures and technologies can be open standards, and I hope they will be.

During the course of everyday, normal government business, supporting open standards is very important. This ensures that all agencies that talk to each other have the ability to do so, and no one is stuck trying to find a document converter.

I hope Massachusettes will stick to its guns. The big challenge there will be how to convince all of the state workers to use whatever tools will be available to support the OpenDocument format. What does the state plan to do if a few workers decide they won't use anything but Word? Fire them?

The challenge for us isn't so much encouraging Massachusettes as encouraging more states, more communities, and the federal government to follow suit. Microsoft can pretty much refuse to adopt OpenDocument if it loses one state to OpenDocument. If a lot more state and local governments do the same, Microsoft will have to do something.

with IANAL;
use IANAL;

[ Reply to This | # ]

When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 12:32 PM EDT
Open communications standards DO exist. Check out the TIA/EIA Project 25
documentation. You will find yourself knee deep in paper. Companies like
Motorola have been putting this standard into radios for several years. The goal
of P25 was to allow communication between various groups in government. But this
does NOT address emergency conditions, such as Katrina brought.
Most radio depends on repeater stations. If you take out the station, the
individual units cannot talk to each other. HAM operators are a great help in
this situation, because they become a manual repeater station.
There is another problem with the concept of OPEN communication. While it is
critical to preserve documents in an open format, to allow the greatest public
access and long term archival, it is NOT desirable to allow the public TV
station to monitor police broadcasts and be reporting live as the police move in
on a drug bust. P25, even though it is an OPEN format, specifies a number of
ways to encrpyt the broadcast, because that is needed for non-emergency
conditions. And while you would like for citizens to be able to contact
emergency workers, you do NOT want emergency communication channels to be
clogged by people who feel the need to talk but have no important information to

[ Reply to This | # ]

When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 12:45 PM EDT
"...All Microsoft has to do is support OpenDocument and the same XML everyone else wants to use. That's it. You tell me why they won't. Give me one good reason...."

If this Microsoft open letter is true, then Microsoft's answer would be they don't want "to shackle itself to a standards body".

In other words, they don't want to be constrained by "slow moving standards and can be perpetually one generation behind the state of the art". Microsoft wants to innovate and be a leader, it seems. I guess that would be their party line because it supports their lockin/lockout business model. But that is a poor excuse and reasoning from a marketing company, IMHO, for not supporting both an open document and their special, more advanced XML format.


[ Reply to This | # ]

Oh, that's easy! - Want a standard? - Bill Gates says use Microsoft
Authored by: clark_kent on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 12:49 PM EDT
No, I haven't become a Sith Lord. It is really sarcasm. All Bill Gates and co.
have been pushing is Standards from Microsoft. If everyone used Microsoft, then
we would all be using the same standards. Of course that would be true, and many
people believe that way. But understand, that would give Microsoft a monopoly,
and quality and innovation would go way down. And we have seen it! But from the
very start of the computer industry, we have promoted many single standards. It
was Microsoft that drew us away from that because we thought that was all there
was to know and experience. What if Microsoft owned TCP-IP and HTML? We would
not have the large internet and web access that we have today. And we are seeing
that many who adopted Microsoft standards so long ago got burnt by Microsoft and
are going for the Open Standards that they should have sought after in the first
place. We need standards that are unincumbered by anyone. And Microsoft needs to
transform from a monopoly into a company that obeys the rules and laws just like
we would expect from any in-good-faith company.

This is no different than 15-20 years ago, when Microsoft started pushing it's
propriatary formats. They have the same philosophy they had when they crushed
IBM, Apple, Commodore, Atari, Corel Wordperfect, Lotus 1-2-3, Caldera, Stac
Electronics, and the little minors. They don't care. The will spend money
wherever they have to (even in buying out politicians and judges) to undo common
formats and move people to their propriatary formats. (Now maybe I sound like a
conspiracy therorist, but if we had things like Groklaw back in the day, we
would have undercovered that drama and tradgety that we now call Microsoft. SCO
is trying to act like Microsoft used to and they can't get away with it because
there are too many eyes now when back in the 80's and easrly 90's, Microsoft
could do just about anything and get away with it.) Back in the 80's, we didn't
think propriatary formats were necesserily bad because because as long as you
had a program to view it, that format was ok. We didn't think ONE company would
try to own everything! We thought every good U.S. company was going to play
fair. If they made money, did they not deserve to be rewarded? Not Microsoft.
They played everyone with the only objective to be the only profitable standing
company with something to show so investors would have the faith to carry on
Microsoft's legacy, at the expense of what people really need. And that is, a
fair market, a fair price, good quality, and things that are usable and
exchangable by everyone using any currently developed system (OS and/or hardware
platform,) and systems that are secure enough to be resilient to attack. Over
the years, that has not amounted to anything I would expect from Microsoft. All
I expect from Microsoft is more monopolistic actions and motivations.

So, what we really need is the opportunity to share information no matter what
the operating system, no matter what the program. Let the merit of the quality
of the software and the operating system stand on it's own, not by being propped
up by a monopolistc motive. But everyone has to choose this, and demand this
from their computer makers, and not settle for sloppy seconds or thirds. We need
to hold our industries accountable for what they do to the general public. And
moving to Open Standards is a way to do it. Because then it can be scrutized by
everyone, not only the data, but the method in which data is stored.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Microsoft's Money is Already Blood Money
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 12:58 PM EDT
Microsoft's policies are indirectly killing people -- thousands today, and
possibly millions in the future.

Note that I am NOT saying that Microsoft is uniquely evil. There are many
companies whose actions kill people, knowingly or unknowingly. One example would
be companies that release chemical pollution, or heavy metals, into the
environment. Another would be drug companies that play patent games to keep
older drugs from becoming generic, or that promote only symptom relief for
conditions that may be curable (for example, heartburn is often the result of
certain bacteria in the stomch). Another obvious example would be the Ford Pinto

In the case of Microsoft, the problem is their destruction of standards, and
their sabotaging of other companys' products, and the resulting destruction of

One of the most glaring examples of both was Microsoft's intentional polluting
of the Java standard. That act of sabotage made it impossible for businesses to
rely on the use of Java over the Internet, and thus delayed the e-commerce
revolution by at least half a decade. This has cost the U.S. economy many of
billions of dollars, and, when you remove that much wealth from the world, it
results in thousands of deaths (not that you would ever be able to match up the
cause and effect). I consider Microsoft's sabotage of Java to be the world's
longest running, and most expensive denial-of-service attack, yet no one has
ever been charged with the crime.

I mentioned millions of deaths in the future. That will occur if Microsoft
succeeds in their current plans to decommoditize Internet protocols. Right now,
the Internet is open to everyone, including the poor in third world countries.
Using older and/or inexpensive PCs, and free software, connected to the
Internet, the world's poor are gaining greater access to education, information
for growing crops, and health information, not to mention direct economic
opportunities. This is magnified, for both rich and poor, by the high speed of
innovation on the Internet. In this way, the Internet will save (and is saving)
millions of lives. But all of that would be lost, if Microsoft succeeded in
turning the Internet into their proprietary domain, with innovation limited to
what the Microsoft monopoly allows.

When destruction occurs in cyberspace, we may not be able to see the shards of
broken glass, but people still get hurt.

And the use of Open Standards is not just a theoretical concept -- it has real
world consequences. People's lives are affected, just as this article points out
with the Katrina example.

[ Reply to This | # ]

"FEMA servers crashing"
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 01:53 PM EDT
Not so much crashing, as unavailable due to mis-configuration. The
domain has no MX record in DNS, and has one and only one A record, with the
server that's at that IP address not accepting inbound port 25 connections. The
lay description of that is that there is effectively no valid way of sending
e-mail to

[ Reply to This | # ]

When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 02:10 PM EDT
"Organizations and individuals that store their data in an open format
avoid being locked in to a single software vendor, leaving them free to switch
software if their current vendor goes out of business or changes their software
or licensing terms to something less favorable."

That in a nutshell is the problem Microsoft has with supporting open formats, or
allowing theirs to be used unencumbered. It's all about lock-in.

[ Reply to This | # ]

When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
Authored by: jtiner on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 02:51 PM EDT
Since we're on the subject of katrina, I would like to take the time to
recognize some folks who have made a difference. I live in San Antonio, TX. and
I want to give a hand to the folks at SATLUG for donating there time to help the
refugees that were sent to San Antonio. Also, SBC communications needs to be
praised for their efforts. RackSpace, based in San Antonio, has also volunteered
a lot, including manpower.

SATLUG and RackSpace support and believe in open standards. I believe that SBC
does as well at some level. Seriously, how much easier and effective could it
have been if it all was open standards based.

[ Reply to This | # ]

When not everything works
Authored by: Tufty on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 03:00 PM EDT
We had a good example of communication breakdown when we had some storm trouble
a few years back. Nothing like Katrina though. The electric Co. turned off the
power to avoid secondary damage from shorts.

Now, everyone says to keep a battery powered radio handy and listen to it for
instructions! Well, it makes a good paper weight or doorstop to stop things
blowing round. Communication it is not good for. Why? When the power goes down
or the wind blows masts over there are no radio stations to broadcast the
instructions you have been told to eagerly listen for! Doh!

I now keep an eye on storms every day during the huricane season, via the
internet. I'm not going to rely on the authorities too much. (I built on a hill
for a reason:)

There has to be a rabbit down this rabbit hole somewhere!
Now I want its hide.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Open standards is need for other types of documents too: RAW image format
Authored by: Gath on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 03:26 PM EDT
The problem with vendor lock-in is certainly not unique to office documents. Other forms of documents need to be opened up as well. See Nikon Defends Encrypted NEF Format and

[ Reply to This | # ]

This hits close to home
Authored by: DL on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 03:27 PM EDT
I'm expecting a direct hit or near miss from Ophelia tomorrow.


[ Reply to This | # ]

FEMA computer servers crashed - The Katrina Factor
Authored by: Fractalman on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 05:03 PM EDT

Here is a link to a report on titled Computer systems blamed for feeble hurricane response quoting the Wall Street Journal.

"swift response by the US federal government to Hurricane Katrina was hampered because FEMA computer servers crashed."

"Department of Health official as saying every email it had sent to FEMA staff bounced"

[ Reply to This | # ]

Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 05:10 PM EDT
I think that there's a big problem with Microsoft talking about their XML
format, and that is the fact that they so happily talk XML-this and XML-that
without really explaining to their targeted audience that there are some really
BIG differences between “their” XML and the true “standard” and open XML.

This way they can too easily go right over many people’s head that don’t have a
technical background by mentioning “we use XML for our file formats” and “XML is
an open standard,” all in the same sentence without having to go into details as
to why that’s not really true, as “their” format breaks the standard and applies
patented extensions that truly make it useless for anything not Microsoft.

I suggest the industry, especially the reporters and other pundants out there,
start labeling the “Microsoft” XML format as something that makes it easier to
identify, such as “MS-XML” or “MS-XMoreLess” perhaps, just so some average Joe
isn’t hoodwinked into thinking that Microsoft’s XML must be the same as the open
standard XML when reading all the Microsoft propaganda (until they eventually
find out differently, but usually not until after they’ve put some money into
MS’s pocket and widened the vendor lock-in moat).

[ Reply to This | # ]

  • X# - Authored by: Anonymous on Wednesday, September 14 2005 @ 01:00 AM EDT
  • MS-XMoreLess - Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, September 15 2005 @ 05:15 PM EDT
Factual errors in the MIcrosoft PDF
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 06:16 PM EDT
I found at least one: they claim that OpenOffice and KOffice are the same

[ Reply to This | # ]

Katrina story - collaboration with open source software
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 06:34 PM EDT
A behind-the-scenes look:

[ Reply to This | # ]

Open Standards are being developed for Emergency Services Communications
Authored by: david_koontz on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 07:12 PM EDT
There is actually an international effort underway to promote communications interoperability for emergency services at all levels of government named Project 25 using standards development under the auspices of the Telecommunications Industry Association ( TIA ), which is an open standards organization.

The federal government in the U.S. has been providing a large number of grants to emergency services organizations in city and state governments to purchase equipment that can interoperate. I first tripped accross this effort when, being a crypto gear afficionado, I was chasing down some secure cell phone information.

Motorola may be the leading supplier for Project 25 compliant equipment with their Astro25 Network. The effort in the U.S. is driven by Homeland Security, largely resulting from the aftermath of 9/11. Any implementation lag could be attributed to cost (those nifty little secure cell phones are around $3000 US), and the fact that Homeland Security is the largest bureaucracy ever created that actually needed to get things right. We've seen that they haven't quite managed to line their ducks up just yet. Motorola markets quick response infrastructure equipment for Project 25 compliant communications. It doesn't help if state and local emergency services aren't equipped.

I'd imagine in this case, it is a matter of infrastructure trickle down. It wasn't a high enough priority at the local and state level to insure telecommunications interoperability, by actually spending large amounts to upgrade infrastructure. I'd imagine that has changed, and would bet we'd see more emphasis and assistance from the federal level, too.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Vote with your feet, folks
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 07:16 PM EDT
I recently changed ISP's from a Windows only shop to a Linux shop, even though
it meant that I am paying more. The technical support of my new ISP is superb,
because these guys actually understand what they are doing, and understand the
concept of "Open Standards". The previous crowd could not even be
bothered to install Spam Assasin "because it's not Microsoft" - and
merely compounded the spam problem.

The new bunch has a service that is smooth and stable (not surprising!).

I don't MIND paying extra, if I can have a secure and stable system that is
supported by real professionals. So vote with your feet, folks: simply withdraw
your support from these "point and click monkeys" and support the good
guys. The message to unethical companies should simply be that we'll take our
money elsewhere.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Authored by: imroy on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 08:30 PM EDT
Here in "the rest of the world", most of us use a mobile telephone system called GSM. It means I could get a phone here in Australia and travel to New Zealand, the UK, or almost anywhere in Europe, Asia, or Russia and still have telephone coverage. Several networks in the US use it, but I've heard they do things like use different fequencies and lock the handsets to the one network. Comparing the mess of US cellular networks with GSM is a good example of vendor lock-in and (semi-) open standards.

[ Reply to This | # ]

  • GSM! - Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, September 15 2005 @ 05:19 PM EDT
When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
Authored by: bberrign on Tuesday, September 13 2005 @ 09:20 PM EDT
PJ, you have written a cogent and brilliant article and i
thank you for persevering in this wonderful project. Just
wish i could help to make this vital message appear in
many more places, but it truly is making a big difference.

PJ and Groklaw are a brilliant ray of light in the dark!

[ Reply to This | # ]

Compatible mail?
Authored by: Anonymous on Wednesday, September 14 2005 @ 04:49 AM EDT
Email from MS susers is not always compatble! I stil get emails from some people
that have a subject but no body and instead there is a mail.dat attachment.
Never been able to figure out how to make that work (or how to make them send
readable emails).

[ Reply to This | # ]

In Search of The Truth
Authored by: Anonymous on Wednesday, September 14 2005 @ 07:27 AM EDT

Increasingly, we see a degree of discontent with FEMA and the US government over their involvement and handling of Katrina.

Criticism there is, even.

We see through the actions of good people, often volunteers, a genuine grass-roots concern for the victims of this disaster, backed up by real-world action to mitigate those misfortunes. And yet bizarrely, this seems to contrast with the actions of the large-scale organisations that should have taken full responsibility and acted appropriately before Katrina even struck.

There is the intangible, yet somewhat uneasy feeling that not all is right with the society we have in place today. What's going on? Do you feel that too? Or are you happy to accept things as "the way they are"? Is this just what inevitably happens to large, innert organisations and governments, or is there more to it than that? Do these questions occur to you?

In short, are you ready to follow the white rabbit?

[ Reply to This | # ]

Microsoft isn't really woried about Massachusetts...
Authored by: Anonymous on Wednesday, September 14 2005 @ 12:22 PM EDT
not when they can get their proprietary XML format rammed down on everybody from
above via WIPO. The exchange format between companies in different nations is
controlled by WIPO and they are a major Microsoft ally.

[ Reply to This | # ]

When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor
Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, September 15 2005 @ 01:41 PM EDT
We do have to remember that one reason the Internet always works is that it was
designed to survive multiple concurrent nuclear strikes and keep on ticking,
since it was meant to be the backbone of command and control for any response to
such an attack. That's a much more stringent requirement than, "we'll have
to refund a million telephone customers twenty cents apiece for an outage like

Actually I'm puzzled that the telephone network went down so completely, because
despite my comment above it is designed to survive disasters too. Wet glass
works just as well as dry glass, and repeaters live in places where they're
expected to be flooded from time to time. I'll be interested to see the
explanation when it comes out.

Cell networks -- that's eaily explained. Towers blow down, no more network.
Next time maybe they'll have folding towers packed away for rapid deployment in
an emergency.

[ Reply to This | # ]

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