- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2006

Effective information sharing between government agencies during a crisis has proved to be a real challenge, and one that is compounded when the information also needs to be communicated to the public in real time. An interesting solution for the latter problem is a coast-to-coast system of message boards that can be updated as information becomes available. On the Op-Ed page, Rep. Rob Simmons describes this intriguing program that uses existing technology to successfully fill the communications void at times of crisis. The message boards could function as an outlet for local, state and federal agencies to share important — and, at times, critical — information with the public on an up-to-the-minute, nationwide basis.

The message boards would help local police alert citizens to crimes, including kidnapping, in addition to spreading information during a large-scale emergency. Many cities across the country already use highway signs to advise drivers of traffic conditions, including detours and accidents, and issue AMBER alerts, which notify drivers of missing children. The new message boards would greatly enhance the value of the alerts by publishing color photos of the missing child. In addition to broadcasting pictures of kidnappers and criminals, we see a host of potential counterterrorism functions for the message boards.

An undeniably appealing aspect of the program is that the estimated $500 million to $900 million required to place the message boards across the country could be recovered, Mr. Simmons believes, by selling advertising space directly below the displays. Creating this public-private partnership could offer a beneficial service without the expenses normally incurred by bringing government programs to life.

The most natural place to begin positioning the message boards is along interstates, but from there the program could easily grow to include displays in schools, offices, sports venues, train stations and airports. Displays could have provided vital information to people trapped in New Orleans last year, as well as those who were evacuating.

Although Mr. Simmons’ goal of making this system “joint from the beginning” is certainly the right one, keeping potential obstacles, such as “parochial interests” and “bureaucratic turf wars,” out of the way will be, in all likelihood, one of the most difficult aspects of this program. This program is valuable in its own right — and even more so if it can indeed be put into effect without cost to the taxpayer.

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