A System Ready for Disasters
Teams can use it to train and practice for an event, giving them a great advantage in a real emergency.
- By Don Walker
- Feb 01, 2007
SIX years ago in New York City, and again two years ago in New Orleans,
responders had to collaborate and communicate in crisis environments
where tried-and-true technologies were of little use.
"What happens to all of us--whether it be an emergency responder or
just a typical civilian user of services--we think in terms of the
telephone; we think in terms of a radio, maybe; and we think in terms
of a television. We don't think in terms of limitations of those
devices," said Jim Camp, president of Vero Beach, Fla.-based Coach2100
Inc., which offers secure, Web-based communications systems for federal
clients and other users. "So what happens? The radio tower gets blown
down in a bad wind and we don't have a radio. Or we have a flood and
the switching stations get flooded and the land lines and suddenly we
don't have telephones. Or the electrical generators are knocked out and
suddenly we don't have electrical power to power anything."
"Take a look at 9/11," Camp added. "No one anticipated that terrible
tragedy in New York with the World Trade Center. You just didn't think
about how you'd communicate with your firemen on the scene when the
infrastructure is falling down around you."
Coming to the rescue for responders during a major disaster is a new
class of online, self-contained information sharing tools that enable
diverse emergency response teams--including fire, police, medical,
public works, military personnel, government and civilian agencies--to
share critical information and work closely together to save lives and
protect property. These tools leverage the Internet to provide an
easily accessible, real-time, secure environment for coordinating
emergency response efforts of any scale.
"Let's talk about infrastructure down," Camp said. "That means you
have to have a power source. We have a portable generator, we have a
battery, there's commercial things we could buy right off the shelf to
provide that backup power source. In the modern age of technology, we
now have satellites in space that will allow us to connect to the
Internet. All we have to have is a satellite antenna to connect to the
satellite, and we're on the Internet. And those are self-contained
units that don't require any infrastructure."
The technology is a server-based system with three separated
networks of servers. It provides 24/7 service and allows transmission
of voice and any kind of data, including video, with all of the data
recorded on the servers, he said. "We can connect thousands of
users--millions, if we had their address. We literally could connect
every government employee worldwide, today."
Illinois City an Early Adopter
These "command and control" systems employ advanced
Service-Oriented Architectures (SOAs) and state-of-the-art interactive
databases to provide a secure, redundant environment that government
and critical civilian agencies use to connect with one another, share
information, marshal resources, and direct the actions of law
enforcement and other key responders.
Users from top-level administrators to emergency personnel in the
field can access the system from any device with a Web browser. Then,
reflecting their role-based authorization, they can view information
and instructions, collaborate across all organizations as necessary,
create new directives, and update the system's interactive database to
show activity progress, completion, or other status.
"First responders have to lay out their work flow, or their work
plan. Let's say the fire chief has a plan prepared for a toxic chemical
spill. He would have certain numbers of first responders that he would
notify and put them in our system. That plan would be already in
place," Camp explained. "All they would have to do is send data back
and forth to each other saying they were responding, this was what they
found, and so on."
An early adopter of Internet-based emergency response technology is
the city of O'Fallon, Ill., which is located 16 miles east of St.
Louis, Mo., and is close to Scott Air Force Base. Scott, a complex of
almost 1,000 buildings on about 2,500 acres, is the home of the 375th
Airlift Wing, which among other services provides aeromedical
evacuation using aircraft such as C-17s, C-130s, and KC-135s.
O'Fallon Mayor Gary Graham said the communications system is now
being tested by O'Fallon's police and fire departments and its
emergency medical service, which consists of ambulances and paramedics.
Later this year, the test will be extended to include the city's public
works department. O'Fallon has about 26,000 residents and a $55.1
million 2006-07 budget, with EMS receiving 3 percent of the budget and
fire 2 percent.
"The system is the only one we have seen that provides a real-time
hookup for continuously staying in contact with all of our people in an
emergency situation," Graham said. "The key for us is its simple and
affordable infrastructure of laptop PCs, battery packs, cellular
broadband, and satellite communications uplink to a triple-redundant
interactive database environment, which enables everyone to connect,
collaborate, report, discuss, and be directed in a secure
communications environment at the same time."
Why are secure, encrypted communications necessary? Suppose bubonic
plague is identified in the Midwest somewhere, Camp said: Who should
get that information? "If you put that out on the wire, or the
telephone, or the radio, anyone can get it. You have great amounts of
panic, great amounts of fear. The bad guys can claim this is a
terrorist act. On and on and on," he said. "You want to keep that
information secure. . . . You want to disseminate it, but you want to
do it on your schedule."
How the Technology Works
How does an Internet-based emergency response system work? It
begins by enabling an administrator such as a Chief Administrative
Officer to set up response teams, which typically include managers,
consultants, police, firefighters, medical personnel, public works
personnel, and response teams in other organizations, whether civilian
Teams can then establish contingency plans in preparation for
events. They can also train and practice for the event, giving them a
great advantage in a real emergency. Team members can be added or
removed at any time, allowing "hot team building." Command and control
can easily be passed on to existing units, transferred if necessary, or
quickly be re-established as required.
In a secure information-sharing environment, users access the system
through the Web browser on their personal computer or hand-held device.
(The system can automatically send an e-mail or phone call alerting a
user to access the system.) As authorized, each team member views the
instructions and information pertaining to his or her assignment. Users
can collaborate, respond at any time, and check off completed tasks,
creating an activity audit trail for later use in assessing performance
and identifying lessons learned.
Camp said for now, response agencies are likely to use this
technology as a backup system to ensure connectivity while continuing
to rely first on telephone and radio. "But as the system evolves--the
live secured voice, the live secured video, the real-time data--as it's
used and as younger people come into the world more savvy of the
high-tech world, I think you're going to see it evolve into more of a
front-line tool. I think that's an evolution that will take some time,"
'It's Almost Unbelievable to Them'
The system can drive rescue and recovery efforts in any emergency
scenario. For example, an observer on a military helicopter can give
Global Positioning System coordinates via the system to civilian rescue
boats, directing them to stranded flood survivors. Likewise, a driver
of a truck laden with supplies can communicate the vehicle's progress
toward a stricken area and be directed as command and control requires
to ensure the supplies are delivered to the exact location where they
are needed. The applications are virtually unlimited, spanning
emergency situations involving commercial and military flights, coastal
and port protection, chemical spills at industrial plants and in
transit, and many other threats to public safety.
The cost of a typical system would be $2,500 to $4,500 per year per
user, said Camp, who said this is comparable to the cost of a laptop
computer that would be used in an emergency vehicle. First responders
are interested in the capability, but it's so new and cutting-edge that
it can be hard for them to grasp, he said. "It's almost unbelievable to
them. They know they need interoperability. They need to be able to
connect, but they fall back to, 'Well, I can do that with a telephone.'
Yes, they can, until the infrastructure goes down, he said. That's
when this technology remains up and running because of the redundancy
and multiple locations of backup systems connected to the Internet.
Emergency responders at command sites and in the field can continually
have access to information and a means of communicating across all
agencies at the same time, which enables a coordinated and highly
effective emergency response.
This article appeared in the February 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.
This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.