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.

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 or military.

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," he said.

'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.

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