A digital communications network stationed at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette is linking the private sector and government during emergencies, with an aim to improve response, save money and boost a disaster-hit economy instead of relying on federal emergency aid.

The Louisiana Business Emergency Operations Center is a Web portal that gets activated during an emergency or severe weather event. A group of people manning the virtual portal disseminate information from the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness to industry associations and registered member businesses.

“It’s not only the first in terms of its concept and development, it’s also the first to be operationalized during a disaster,” said Michael Dunaway, the new director of the National Incident Management Systems and Advanced Technologies Institute that oversees the center.

Members log into the portal to find the most up-to-date state information on emergency preparations and response and may then offer services to the state for any recovery needs, like chainsaws to chop fallen trees or food for those who sought shelter.

It costs the state less than relying on FEMA, said Ramesh Kolluru, UL-Lafayette’s vice president for research, who helped establish the BEOC. It saved the state about $1.4 million during Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, also boosting businesses normally disrupted by the storms, Kolluru said.

“They are now making money because they’re selling their food,” Kolluru said, referring to grocery stores and restaurants.

Representatives from member organizations, along with internal planners, man the facility when activated and share information back and forth between the state and member businesses and industry associations.

“The goal here is to establish a communications loop,” Dunaway said.

The BEOC is housed inside Abdalla Hall at UL-Lafayette’s research park on Cajundome Boulevard. It also serves as a backup location for GOHSEP should disaster strike the Baton Rouge area and lead to an evacuation or knock out communications, Dunaway said.

GOHSEP has invested about $494,000 in U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant money into the BEOC since its development began in 2008, said Christina Dayries, the office’s chief of staff who’s also deputy director of grants and administration.

Most of the cost went to startup investments, with its current $50,000 budget now funding operations and preparedness training costs, Dayries said.

The idea for the BEOC was conceived after Hurricane Katrina, when thousands of evacuees sought refuge in Lafayette. Kolluru said the private sector’s response to Katrina proved generous but uncoordinated.

“There was no way for them to plug into the machine of the state’s response, and that hit us like a ton of bricks,” Kolluru said.

Kolluru said the university’s technological research had not been involved much in disaster management before Katrina, but its history with researching supply chain management proved an asset in future emergency applications.

After Katrina, the university established NIMSAT — short for National Incident Management Systems and Advanced Technologies — as a research and development arm for homeland security and emergency management with the intent of establishing a BEOC.

Early versions were activated in 2008 for Gustav and Ike, enabling a mobilization of supply chains to remedy a fuel shortage during evacuations.

“It was a test under duress, so to speak. It was done in the heat of a real event,” Dunaway said.

The framework also was used during the 2010 BP oil disaster and the 2011 Mississippi River floods, with other activations since occurring during winter weather storms and other severe weather events that affected the state.

NIMSAT and the BEOC fall under UL-Lafayette’s Informatics Research Institute, which is part of the university’s School of Computing and Informatics. The college is expected to triple the number of students in the program as part of a $4.5 million, 10-year pledge by Louisiana Economic Development in a deal to bring tech company CGI to the research park.

The university’s informatics program is only about five years old but became established as job growth is increasing for graduates in that field.

Jobs for information security analysts are expected to grow by 37 percent by 2022, ranking at No. 16 of the top 20 growing job sectors, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate from 2014. Jobs for emergency management directors over the same time period are expected to grow about 8 percent.

The idea behind the BEOC is to turn to the private sector as much as possible when crisis hits — much like the rest of the time civilization functions, Dayries, with GOHSEP, said.

“The faster we get the grocery stores and the restaurants open, it saves the state money,” Dayries said. It allows the economy to continue to thrive.”

Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.