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17 March 2005

New Information System Aids Emergency Responders

Personal digital assistant software can help identify hazardous materials

The National Library of Medicine (NLM), part of the National Institutes of Health, has released software for personal digital assistants (PDAs) that is designed to help first responders when they arrive at a hazardous-materials incident, such as a chemical spill.

The Wireless Information System for Emergency Responders (WISER) gives emergency responders information on hazardous materials (hazmat), including physical characteristics, human health data, and containment and suppression information, according to a March 11 NLM press release.

"First responders in general, and Hazmat units in particular, must make decisions quickly in handling hazardous-materials incidents," said Jack Snyder, NLM Associate Director for Specialized Information Services. "They need accurate information about hazardous substances, emergency resources available and surrounding environmental conditions to save lives and minimize environmental impacts. WISER provides this lifesaving service."

Operational versions of WISER for Palm OS and Pocket PC are available without charge at http://wiser.nlm.nih.gov/. A desktop version will be available this spring and a Web-based version is being developed.

WISER is customized for easy navigation and quick access to key information required by first responders. A useful feature of WISER is support for identifying an unknown substance.

NLM is collaborating with regional and local emergency response organizations and using their feedback as input for future enhancements to the software.

Text of the NLM press release follows:

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National Institutes of Health
National Library of Medicine
Press release, March 11, 2005

New Hand-held Information System for Emergency Responders

(Bethesda, Md.) -- The National Library of Medicine (NLM), a component of the National Institutes of Health, has announced the release of a PDA software tool designed to help first responders when they arrive at a hazardous material (Hazmat) incident, such as a chemical spill.

WISER (Wireless Information System for Emergency Responders) provides the emergency responder with critical information on hazardous substances, including physical characteristics, human health data, and containment and suppression information. Employing the unique characteristics of a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant), WISER is customized for easy navigation and quick access to key information required by first responders. To aid decision making, users can specify the role they are currently performing at the scene of an incident, and WISER organizes the critical information in a sequence most relevant to a first responder on-the-scene, a Hazmat specialist, or an emergency medical specialist (EMS).

"First responders in general, and Hazmat units in particular, must make decisions quickly in handling hazardous-materials incidents," says Dr. Jack Snyder, NLM Associate Director for Specialized Information Services. "They need accurate information about hazardous substances, emergency resources available, and surrounding environmental conditions to save lives and minimize environmental impacts. WISER provides this lifesaving service."

Snyder observed that WISER will be an indispensable tool for first responders in their efforts to combat the growing incidence of hazardous material incidents in the United States. Based on statistics collected by the U.S. Coast Guard's National Response Center on all hazardous substances and waste released into the U.S. environment, Hazmat incidents have been increasing yearly since 1991, with approximately 34,000 incidents reported in 2004.

A useful feature of WISER is support for identifying an unknown substance. Using input about observed physical properties of the unknown substance, along with reported symptoms and observable signs among victims, WISER can help the user narrow the range of substances that may be involved in a specific incident. As the emergency responder selects observed properties and symptoms, WISER looks in its database for chemical substances that have these characteristics. The list of candidate chemicals decreases as additional information is provided, and WISER presents the user with a list of candidate chemicals at any point in the identification process.

The operational versions of WISER for Palm OS and for Pocket PC are now available without charge for downloading to users' PDAs at http://wiser.nlm.nih.gov/. More than 1700 copies of the WISER software have been requested and downloaded. A desktop version will be available later this spring, and a web-based version is also being developed.

NLM is collaborating with regional and local emergency response organizations and using their feedback as input for future enhancements to WISER. For example, NLM is working with CapWIN, an integrated transportation and criminal justice information wireless network across Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. WISER has been added as a resource to this network, providing easy access to authoritative chemical information.

WISER is also being incorporated into training curricula, such as the Baltimore County, Md. Hazmat Team training program, the Illinois Fire Service Institute, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program.

Located in Bethesda, Maryland, the National Library of Medicine, the world's largest library of the health sciences, is a component of the National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services.

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