7 June 2002


Spatial Data Management at Heart of Bioterrorism Act
Friday, May 31, 2002

A bioterrorism bill passed by the U.S. Congress in late May 2002 and sent to President Bush for signing into law carries several opportunities for spending on geospatial and related technologies.

The legislation, called the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 (H.R. 3448), seeks to establish safeguards and strengthen emergency-response capabilities to defend against terrorist attacks that involve microorganisms or poisons. The act endeavors to protect humans, as well as crops and animals, via a series of programs, policies and grants at all levels of government. The legislation also creates within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services a position of assistant secretary for public health emergency preparedness, and emphasizes information coordination among agencies and governments.

Emerging amid all the act’s new programs and policies is a planning, response and communication structure known as the National Disaster Medical System. Mobilization of resources—from information to medical personnel to supplies—will comprise the heart of the system. The legislation calls on the secretary of health and human services to test the capabilities of the emerging disaster system, assessing the ability of governments to mobilize resources for a public-health emergency that affects more than one geographic location at the same time.

Specifically, H.R. 3448 calls for the creation of systems that will include location-based information. One of the key requirements of the act, for example, calls on the secretary of health and human services to maintain a national database that includes the names and locations of users of certain toxins and biological agents. Moreover, the bill aims to create a strong network of bioterrorism surveillance systems under the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The act also emphasizes—at all levels of government—the integration of existing systems that can be used to monitor bioterrorism activities or targets.

Geospatial technologies also could come into play in other areas covered by the act. H.R. 3448 encourages strategic planning, research, disease pattern detection, the tracking and monitoring of would-be bioterrorism events, supply tracking, and efficient deployment of emergency response personnel and equipment—all activities that will undoubtedly incorporate geographic information. The legislation also emphasizes the improvement of automated systems for monitoring water-related assets such as manholes and fire hydrants, as well as food supplies. In addition, H.R. 3448 calls for a variety of geography-related studies such as determining which areas might be "underserved" in a bioterrorist attack or establishing an effective way to distribute potassium iodide tablets on a mass scale (the tablets help combat the effects of nuclear radiation exposure).

Reporting is a key component of the act as well. The legislation calls on the executive branch to regularly submit data and reports to Congress regarding its activities under the new act. And the act leaves open opportunities for governments to experiment with emerging technologies. For example, the Congressional report accompanying the legislation cites virtual-reality/modeling applications and World Wide Web-based planning applications tied to wireless mobile technology as possible tools for fighting bioterrorism.