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Sharing data in a crisis-State and local groups work on interoperability

This article appears in the issue April 2008 [Volume 17, Issue 4]
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When a fire broke out in March 2007 in the Sierra Peak area near Anaheim, Calif., Assistant City Manager Tom Wood was on a business trip in Washington, D.C. Yet, using an Internet connection, he was able to log into the city’s Enterprise Virtual Operations Center (EVOC), call up its mapping tools to study the fire’s location and see where the city’s response vehicles were, as well as those of other cities in the region. Wood also could read real-time updates from incident commanders about the event.

The EVOC is the result of a multiyear process that the city of Anaheim and its IT partner EDS have undertaken to integrate data and communications to improve emergency response.

"The vision has been solid from the beginning—to provide better situational awareness to decision makers in an easy-to-use application that brings together information from applications that were previously stovepiped," explains David Brown, an EDS employee and the EVOC project manager for Anaheim.

For almost 10 years, large metropolitan areas have been working on interoperability issues, but in many cases those efforts have been limited to getting telecommunications systems to communicate with one another. Sharing data during an emergency has proven a more difficult knowledge management challenge.

Especially since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, there’s been a sense that better information sharing protocols are needed. For instance, during Katrina, officials in emergency operations centers (EOCs) needed to know where all the rail cars in the area were and what type of hazardous material was in each one, so they could send out HazMat teams to check on them. Many were under water.

During an emergency, officials also must know the status of hospital facilities near a disaster area, says Drew Sachs, VP, crisis and consequence management, for consultancy James Lee Witt & Associates, a part of GlobalOptions Group. "That data is often not readily available to an EOC," he adds.

Despite agencies’ efforts to improve sharing real-time data, portals or intranets linking multiple emergency response agencies and jurisdictions are still rare. "You won’t find many midsize cities that haven’t touched on this, but few have a complete solution in place," says Sachs.

He notes that many regions have tried to create data warehouses to pool information, but they often run into infighting between agencies about how and when data can be accessed. Sometimes the data in them is not updated often, or they contain data in formats that are difficult to consolidate or manipulate.

Another complexity is getting data from private-sector players such as hospitals and chemical plants, which are often reluctant to share data with the government. There are also issues of sensitivity of information. Critical infrastructure, such as gas and oil pipelines, has national security implications.

"You have to have agency agreements in place about who is going to access information and how it is going to be used. Usually this has not been worked out," Sachs says. "Often it is done on the fly during an emergency, and it takes precious time during which EOCs don’t get data."

"Some large cities like New York and Atlanta have solved these issues, but most second-tier cities are still working through them," he says.

Anaheim began fostering interagency collaboration in November 2004 by bringing together police and fire computer-aided dispatch systems, traffic and surveillance camera feeds and an emergency notification system, with a Web browser front end, says Brown. The EVOC now pulls data from 15 sources. It can plot the location of all city vehicles and superimpose parcel data, so that officials can see plot parcel boundaries, who owns what buildings and if there is the potential of any hazardous materials.

"EVOC also integrates the city’s calendar system, so that if something bad happens, we can easily look and see what type of events might be impacted," Brown says.

As with any data integration project, some agencies that own data are concerned about how it is going to be used and protected. "We did have issues about federal regulations regarding who can see certain information, and we had to be careful to take the right steps to limit that," he says. "We have a governance structure set up to determine these things."

A channel for communication

A disjointed response to the October 2003 Cedar Fire made San Diego police and fire officials realize they needed to use knowledge management tools more efficiently.

Agencies weren’t talking to each other as well as they should, recalls Officer Sandi Lehan of the San Diego Police Department’s Information Services division. "Each entity had its own EOC with liaisons to other operation centers, but communication broke down," she says. "We wanted to see better collaboration as a region."

That desire to share resources was the impetus behind Regional Command and Control Communications (3Cs), a grant-funded project of both the city of San Diego and county of San Diego, which Lehan describes as "a public safety intranet for the region." The project uses microwave technology to feed live video and other public safety applications across the network.

The first phase of the project, which went live in March 2007, provides streaming video feeds from incident sites and videoconferencing between command centers. Participants include the San Diego Police Department, San Diego Sheriff’s Department, San Diego Fire-Rescue Department and the county and city EOCs. It was first used during small fires and landslides in 2007, and had its first major test during the devastating fires of October 2007.

3Cs’ main goal was to open up a channel for interagency communication to help incident commanders agree on priorities and allow people across agencies to ask questions of each other. "If they all see the same pictures," Lehan says, "they can avoid playing the telephone game where the message changes each time it is passed along."

During the October 2007 fires, the videoconference link stayed open for four straight days. It allowed law enforcement officials to ask fire personnel about priorities for evacuation and repopulation. Video links from helicopters allowed police to monitor the situation at Qualcomm Stadium, where many evacuees were sheltered. Incident commanders described 3Cs as an enormous help in integrating agency response efforts.

Phase two of the project, which is just getting underway, will involve linking departments’ data and applications. It will also expand 3Cs to networks of neighboring counties with which San Diego County has mutual aid agreements.

Governance of a multijurisdictional conglomerate is one of 3Cs' biggest challenges, along with ongoing funding.

 

 

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