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Preparing to manage the next disaster

Recent terrorism events, national disasters, the RapidCom Initiative, and the FEMA / Department of Justice TOPOFF national exercises have all highlighted the value of public safety communication interoperability, incident command protocols, resource management capabilities and multi-agency coordination in support of disaster management preparedness, response and recovery.

In response to these disasters and lessons learned, local agencies and states have spent millions of local dollars on communication technologies. The monies have been spent on developing fusion centers, land mobile radio systems, 9-1-1 and emergency operation centers, training of first responders, local government officials and non-governmental agencies in an effort to achieve interoperability and other National Incident Management System (NIMS) capabilities (Homeland Security Presidential Directive-5, Management of Domestic Incidents).

The federal government has spent billions of tax dollars in pursuit of these capabilities through such programs as the Department of Homeland Security Interoperable Communications Technical Support (ICTAP), the COPS Interoperable Communications Technology Program (ICTP), the Department of Homeland Security Urban Area Security Initiative, and the Tactical Interoperable Communication Plan (TICP).

These grant programs are among the most well known but represent only part of the dozens of similar grants provided to state and local agencies by the federal government in the quest to provide capable communication and information systems in support of disaster management.

Measuring the Outcome

In December 2006, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released the results of a National Interoperability Baseline Survey of 22,400 emergency response agencies of which 6,819 agencies responded. The survey found that about half of all agencies either do not use command and control standard operating procedures or rely on informal command and control procedures to support interoperable communications with no significant differences between disciplines. (DHS SAFECOM National Interoperability Baseline Survey, December 2006).

In January 2007, DHS reported on the Tactical Interoperable Communications Scorecard, which was designed to assess “maturity” levels of the 75 urban agencies that participated in the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) and their associated tactical TICP developed as a part of the UASI grant program. The scorecard report concluded that all 75 of the agencies met the minimal requirements of the UASI grants, which meant that the UASI area developed a TICP that would provide communication interoperability within the first hour of an incident response.

The scorecard also reported that strategic planning and governance processes that would provide oversight and responsibility for projects were not fully implemented and remained a challenge for most urban areas. It was found that beyond the mandated TICP activities required by the UASI grant, only 24% of grant agencies had fully implemented plans, 58% had no plans under development and 18% had plans under development but not yet approved.

Surveys and evaluations of public safety agencies reveal a lack of ongoing planning and commitment to develop and use standard operating procedures in support of interoperable communication. Yet, experience clearly shows that communication interoperability can be achieved at the intra- and inter-agency levels of public safety organizations by establishing clear standard operating procedures, training to those procedures and using the interoperable activities on a daily basis.

Achieving interoperable communication is not about buying a technology, it is about effective management and supervision and sometimes simply having the organizational desire to achieve it. Introducing technologies to achieve more complex levels of local or regional interoperability require the same activities, organizational discipline and commitment, so technology alone is not the interoperability “silver bullet.”

In April 2008, testifying before the House Homeland Security Emergency Preparedness Subcommittee, Department of Homeland Security Under Secretary Jay Cohen said, “First responders were not always enthusiastic about sharing communications. We have some communities where the police chief only wants the police to talk to him ...” To a large extent, “Technology is not the problem with interoperability ... it’s the culture.”

What are the greatest challenges (besides adequate funding) surrounding disaster management improvements? Cooperation and sharing of resources, and the most critical—authority and power.

If we are to develop disaster response capabilities expected by the community and required by first responders, cooperation involving funding, equipment purchases, database access and sharing, infrastructure access, training and exercise is needed at all levels of government.

Types of Incidents

In February, a national survey was released of 200 public safety officials and first responders, conducted by Motorola and the Association of Public Safety Communication Officials (APCO). The survey assessed how public safety organizations use current communication technologies and what type of technologies they would deploy to improve emergency response and public and responder safety. An important finding of the survey revealed that 65% of those surveyed stated the ability to respond to a natural disaster is their top concern, terrorism and other criminal and non-criminal events were far down on the response list.

Natural disasters rarely, if ever, require the rapid intervention of state or federal emergency and disaster agencies. The old axiom that “all politics are local” reflects the public safety axiom that “all responses are local,” regardless of the circumstances and severity of the event.

If the past is a predicator, little will change in the future, except perhaps the severity of the incidents. Large-scale incidents involving schools or public arenas, unfortunately, will remain part of the future of disaster response. Nuclear, biological or chemical events occur across the country today, and in the future, perhaps some will be of terrorist origin, involving suicide bombings or dirty (chemical, biological, or nuclear) bombs. Each, however, will involve local response regardless of the location or severity.

Capabilities of Incident Management

Some first responders share the view that the focus on new technology should not be on producing a communication network that permits everyone to talk to anyone at anytime, but it should focus on developing capabilities to manage an incident. They believe the focus should be on developing an incident management system with the capability to adequately respond, manage and complete the mission and objectives surrounding the public safety event. Communication systems should not be seen, in an effort to establish interoperability, as the objective, but a means with which we can quickly respond to an all-hazard event with agility and flexibility, regardless of the size of the incident.

The National Response Framework (NRF) states that capabilities must exist to conduct all-hazard responses with “scalable, flexible and adaptable coordinating structures to align key roles and responsibilities.”

Within the NRF, there are three key response activities related to disaster management; incident response; resource management; and the National Incident Management System’s Incident Command System (NIMS/ICS). All require planning, cooperative training, resource sharing and exercises.

Of the many activities surrounding incident response, two capabilities are essential in meeting the goals and objectives established for the incident: 1) situational awareness—being aware of what is happening around you to understand how information, events, and your own actions will impact your goals and objectives, both now and in the near future and 2) a common operating picture—collating and gathering information such as traffic, weather, actual damage, resource availability of any type (voice, data, etc.) from agencies / organizations in order to make decisions during an incident. These two capabilities are at times understated as to their value in managing incident response and the associated decision making occurring around it. Many of the solutions available to public safety in support of these capabilities are incomplete or considered an enhancement to existing applications and fail to provide a comprehensive and integrated solution.

The purpose of these two particular capabilities are to identify, collect, collate, analyze, disseminate and manage incident-related information to create a common operating picture that facilitates decision making and increases the situational awareness of decision makers, emergency managers, incident commanders and first responders. These capabilities involve interoperable voice, data, imaging and video communication pathways, compliant with national standards. Their key function is the sharing of information, including a wide range of secure and un-secure databases in real time and vetted through information assurance standards in support of an all-hazard response.

Interoperable communication is not about whether we embrace Project 25 radio communication standards, software-defined radios, multi-band radios, or Radio over Internet Protocol (RoIP) technology. Technologies will ultimately be judged by how well they meet the operational requirements defined by emergency managers and first responders.

Tomorrow’s challenge is building an open standards system with capabilities to identify, acquire and evaluate information, including disparate databases; to assist emergency managers in determining a course of action; and to support the NIMS/ICS.

What is Needed?

We have spent billions of dollars and more than half a decade investing in technologies that have yet to solve the problem of interoperable communication and information sharing. The problem is not technology or vendor specific, per se, it is the entire process of governance, operations and technology and our failure to integrate each of these core functions into an incident-oriented communication system.

Tomorrow’s incident communication system must be scalable and flexible (tactical and strategic) in support of any type or size event and provide NIMS/ICS-compliant tactical coordination between first responders and incident commanders, up through the levels of management and leadership, to include military resources, as dictated by the incident’s mission and objectives. This is the future of interoperable communication and information sharing.

John F. Walker is a manager in BearingPoint’s Public Services Consulting Practice. He supports the delivery of communications technology solutions to BearingPoint’s Public Safety clients. With more than 35 years of experience in the public safety community, Walker’s strengths include project management, interoperable communications, law enforcement operations and management, with direct experience in the implementation of HSPD-8 capabilities-based, all-hazard planning and exercise evaluation and with HSPD-5 NIMS/ICS implementation and compliance evaluation.

Published in Public Safety IT, May/Jun 2008

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