Dirty bomb? Grab your PDA!

Devotees of personal digital assistants (PDA) can put "survival" alongside "calendar" and "address book" in the list of useful applications, now that two companies have announced release of Terrorism Survival Plan software for PDAs.

The new database application is a joint effort by Stephenson Strategies Inc. in Medfield, Mass., and Town Compass LLC in Seattle, according to a statement from the two companies. The software works on handhelds and other portable devices that run either the Palm OS or Microsoft Pocket PC 2002 operating systems.

Terrorism Survival Plan brings together terrorism response information published by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state and local governments. Information from government guides published in the U.K., Japan and Israel is also included in the database, the companies said.

The idea for the new product has its origin in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when both the federal government and citizens were caught unprepared and uninformed, said W. David Stephenson, principal at Stephenson Strategies, a consulting firm. "The only effective response on 9/11 was from passengers on Flight 93 who, because they were told by families what was happening, took matters into their own hands," Stephenson said.

The federal government hasn't done a good job of providing citizens with information on how to respond to attacks, which could diminish fear and a sense of vulnerability, he said.

Terrorism Survival Plan uses Town Compass' DataViewer application to organize and display content from the antiterrorism database on handheld devices running Palm OS and Pocket PC 2002. DataViewer enables large databases to be easily displayed and navigated on small screens, such as those on PDAs, according to the statement from the companies.

The software is initially being sold as two separate modules, one for survival planning and a second for response. Each costs $3.95. Alternatively, users can buy the two modules in a bundled package that costs $5.95. The latter price includes free revisions containing updated information, Stephenson said.

With the survival planning module, users can get information on designing an emergency response plan for families and the elderly and infirm, Stephenson said.

In the event of an attack, the response module enables users to drill down from top-level categories, such as Assess the Situation, to more specific instructions, such as checking in with a designated emergency contact, evacuating a high rise or checking for fire.

Stephenson Strategies collected and summarized information for the Terrorism Survival Plan database, boiling hundreds of pages of information down into more than 700 short text summaries on topics such as preparing emergency supply kits, evacuating and finding shelter.

While he acknowledged that someone's first response during a terrorist attack might not be to pull out his PDA stylus and start tapping, Stephenson said that if people know that reliable information is available, they will probably use it. "What I'd like to think is that even though initial reaction may be panic, they'll eventually realize 'Hey, I've got stuff on my Palm Pilot,'" Stephenson said.

Some federal officials appear to have come to the same conclusion. On Friday, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said that his agency will begin a three-month pilot program to transmit urgent information about biological agents to the PDAs of health care clinicians (see story). The program is designed to test ways for federal officials to communicate with clinicians during a bioterrorist attack.

For Stephenson, the question is not whether technology will play a role in society's response to a future terrorist attack, but what role it will play. "People will use whatever technology they have at their command. The question is, will they use it out of sheer panic, or are we going to equip them with the information they need to act as calmly and purposefully as possible?"

The new software is available immediately from PocketDirectory.com, Handango.com and PalmGear.com, the companies said.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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