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At 3:32 a.m. on a cold winter morning, a train derails near a steep hillside sloping toward a river. The train was supporting two locomotives, three box cars, and one tanker car. The derailed cars and locomotives are at the bottom of a 30-foot hill; the tanker car is in the river. The railroad tracks are unusable from the bridge over a southeastern stretch extending 10 miles.
A 250-bed college dormitory is located just 2 miles to the northeast. The identifying label on the side of the tanker car reads, “Anhydrous Ammonia.” Anhydrous ammonia is caustic and on contact generates severe chemical burns. It could create severe physical damage if leaked into the river or carried down-wind into the nearby town.
This imagined situation raises a number of important questions. How will responding agencies share critical incident-related data across disciplines and jurisdictions? Will law enforcement be able to share important roadblock data with emergency medical service personnel operating the responding ambulances? Will EMS be able to communicate patient data to nearby hospitals? Will emergency management (EM) officials be able to send updated situational reports, detailing hazardous materials data to responding fire services? How will emergency responders share the plume model if the chemical is carried in the wind?
Such questions are indeed vital because effective information sharing can mean the difference between life and death. Yet many times, emergency responders in adjacent agencies have difficulty communicating due to challenges such as 1) assignment to different radio bands, 2) incompatible proprietary systems and infrastructures, 3) lack of adequate standard operating procedures (SOP) and 4) ineffective, multi-jurisdictional, multi-disciplinary governance structures.
Disaster Management’s (DM) tools and resources are improving incident response and recovery for scenarios such as the train wreck described above by creating the ability to securely share information across the Nation’s EM community.
Established by the Office of Management and Budget as one of the president’s 24 e-Government Initiatives, DM aims to meet the nation’s need for a single access point to emergency information for residents and local, tribal, state, federal, and non-governmental authorities. Originally managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, DM joined the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office for Interoperability and Compatibility (OIC) in December 2005.
DM’s transition to DHS has advanced the department’s mission by improving emergency preparation, mitigation, response, and recovery efforts across the nation. DM will leverage DHS’s extensive experience and knowledge bases as the program strives to strengthen incident management and create the capacity for effective, secure information sharing.
DM helps drive OIC’s interoperability mission. It complements and extends SAFECOM, OIC’s wireless interoperability program, with a data interoperability and information-sharing component. Both the DM and SAFECOM programs are focused on meeting the interoperable communication requirements of the emergency response community. DM’s transfer to OIC allows DM and SAFECOM to jointly pursue more efficient and cost-effective enhancement of interoperable voice and data communication standards.
DM Tools and Resources
DM is developing tools to improve delivery of disaster-assistance information and services. The four major DM resources below are no-cost solutions to help emergency responders strengthen information and data sharing. First, Disaster Management Interoperability Services (DMIS) Toolkit offers emergency managers basic incident-management software tools. Second, DM Messaging Standards Initiative is a practitioner-driven, public-private partnership to create information-sharing capabilities between disparate incident-management software applications and systems.
Third, Open Platform for Emergency Networks (OPEN) is a platform that enables computers using different software packages to share incident-related software. Fourth, DisasterHelp.gov provides the general public and emergency response community with a wealth of information and services relating to disaster response, including search tools to locate lost family members and no-cost collaboration tools.
Common situational awareness is critical in effective emergency response. In the opening train-wreck scenario, emergency responders would include law enforcement, fire services, EMS, the U.S. Department of Transportation, HazMat, emergency management, and community leaders. Each organization has real-time-data needs such as roadblock placement, victim count, and decontamination unit location that are specific to its own mission-critical responsibilities. These needs must be relayed to other responders.
DMIS is a free incident-management software system. The software allows geographically dispersed people and organizations to establish and maintain a common situational awareness of critical-incident data, such as incident records, plume data, maps, roadblocks, and evacuation routes.
For emergency response organizations, DMIS provides a convenient mechanism during an incident for instant data sharing. The sender-recipient relationship can be either one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many. As a result, the emergency response community is able to share digital information efficiently and work more effectively across organizational, geographic, and governmental boundaries.
DMIS provides a secure environment for exchanging information and for controlled access to a basic incident-management toolkit. This toolkit allows registered emergency response user groups to manage incidents through an interoperability backbone of software and hardware.
Charlottesville, VA Fire Chief Charles Werner comments, “DMIS offers a disaster interoperability and management solution that can be used by all—big and small—and best of all, it’s free. Thus, it addresses the needs of even the smallest agencies with very limited financial resources.”
DMIS was instrumental in determining the need to evacuate apartment buildings in Laurel, MD before Hurricane Isabel in 2003. In Alachua County, FL, emergency responders used DMIS to assist in rapid data capture for coordinating response activities after a severe thunderstorm, which included a reported tornado touch down. The emergency response community can obtain a basic DMIS incident-management toolkit at www.dmi-services.org. Any emergency response organization within a particular city, county, or region qualifies as a user group.
DM Messaging Standards Initiative
The train-wreck scenario illustrates that the transfer of appropriate and available information is critical to successful incident management. The ability of the EM community to effectively transfer this intelligence is greatly affected by messaging standards.
An agreed-upon set of messaging standards helps private industry align technology solutions, systems, and hardware with practitioner- and incident-management system requirements. The DM Messaging Standards Initiative is a practitioner-driven, public-private partnership to create information-sharing capabilities between disparate incident-management software applications and systems. The resulting Extensible Markup Language (XML) standards assist the emergency response community in sharing data seamlessly and securely while responding to an incident.
To ensure messaging standards meet the needs of the emergency response community, practitioners are at the center of DM’s standards-development effort. In 2004, DM established the Standards Working Group (SWG). Composed of emergency response practitioners, federal partners, and technical and industry experts, the SWG assists in development of interagency emergency data communications standards.
Once a standard is approved, industry can develop user-driven software and systems for the emergency response community. The implementation of standards, with products as the result, drives market innovation and industry competition. Both the user-community and industry are the beneficiaries.
DM’s practitioner-driven approach is working; two standards have been approved, and 20 standards are waiting for approval. The Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) is an international, not-for-profit consortium that drives development, convergence, and adoption of e-business standards.
The approved standards are the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP). CAP is a standard alerting message that can be sent across software and hardware systems and used daily. OASIS adopted the CAP standard in October 2005. The other standard is the EDXL Distribution Element (DE) specification—DE describes a standard message-distribution framework for data sharing among emergency information systems using the XML-based EDXL suite of specifications. This format may be used with any data transmission system.
The primary purpose of the DE is to aid the routing of any properly formatted XML emergency message to recipients. DE may be thought of as a data container, providing information to route payload message sets such as alerts or resource messages. It does this by including key routing information such as distribution type, geography, incident, and sender/recipient. OASIS approved the DE standard in April 2006.
Standards currently being reviewed by OASIS include the Resource Messaging (RM) standard. RM is a suite of 20 standards enabling an emergency responder to request a specific tool or resource, such as specialized personnel, a tool, or a vehicle. RM standards also include response- and resource-management capabilities.
The other standard under review, the Hospital AVailability Exchange (HAVE), allows users to exchange information on hospital status and resources, such as bed capacity and availability between medical and health organizations and emergency information systems. HAVE enables on-scene emergency responders to move victims more efficiently to the best facilities.
Even after a standard is approved, a means of transport is still required to move information between disparate systems. Practitioners responding to the train-wreck scenario could leverage DM’s OPEN (Open Platform for Emergency Networks) to transfer files, pictures, and other data between agencies.
OPEN is a non-proprietary operational interoperability backbone that allows disparate third-party applications, systems, networks, and devices to securely share information. OPEN is designed to support delivery of real-time data and situational awareness to emergency responders in the field, at operation centers, and across all levels of incident management. OPEN also gives vendors and third-party systems the ability to “write” to the OPEN application programming interface so their systems can effectively share information without divulging proprietary information.
OPEN provides 1) an infrastructure with common service functions that enable different automated information systems to exchange data, 2) an interoperable platform to assist vendors with prototyping, testing, and implementing emerging data standards, and 3) a highly secured environment in which the emergency responder community can share data with whom they want when required.
OPEN operates as a system of systems that allows information to be shared with other applications, devices, and networks. This permits the widest possible environment for the emergency responder community to share information. OPEN is deployed on a national level, so all levels of government can communicate with each other when needed. OPEN permits disparate third-party incident-management software applications and devices to share information through a secured, open architecture platform. This greatly enhances the ability to more effectively manage incident information.
Moreover, emergency responders do not have to worry about system or software compatibility. Participating systems conform to the shared interface standards when conducting transactions, allowing organizations to make changes to a system without affecting the ability to share information with other systems.
OPEN is available to members of the emergency response community at no cost. DHS provides the support and network management for OPEN along with technical support to help with interfacing questions or issues. DM encourages the EM community to ask if their vendors interface with OPEN and include EDXL standards.
DisasterHelp.gov is a unified point of access to disaster-related information and services for citizens and emergency organizations. This Web portal offers convenient access to critical disaster information from relevant government agencies and collaborating local, state, tribal, federal, and non-government organizations. In the train-wreck scenario, local law enforcement could use DisasterHelp.gov to download evacuation maps and residents could use the portal to identify how to volunteer for recovery efforts.
During and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, DisasterHelp.gov provided access for resources relating to hurricane preparedness, response, and recovery. Government agencies used DisasterHelp.gov to share documents with employees. These documents included situation reports, health advisories, various government forms, maps of the disaster area, SOPs, response and operations plans, bulletins, and emergency declarations.
DisasterHelp.gov provided access to assistance and critical information to hurricane victims, including organizations accepting donations and volunteers, emergency contact systems such as next-of-kin registries, health and safety tips, government status reports, and the evacuation plans for the states of Texas and Louisiana. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration used DisasterHelp.gov to supply public advisories, storm-tracking maps, and flood-repair and flood-recovery information.
The initial thrust of DM initiatives has been to provide information and services related to the four pillars of all-hazards DM: preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation. DM’s commitment to emergency responders’ needs will continue in the program’s next phases. These phases will focus on delivery of integrated, cross-agency processes and services to citizens, governments, and non-governmental organizations.
If the train-wreck scenario happened in your community, how would you share the incident data? Would you have access to the no-cost tools necessary to share critical information? DM can help you and your agency prepare for such eventualities. Download and begin to use DMIS at www.dmi-services.org. Access critical information and updates from www.DisasterHelp.gov.
Chip Hines is the acting director of the Office for Interoperability and Compatibility, Science and Technology Directorate for the Department of Homeland Security. He has more than 30 years of experience working in the emergency management field, with more than 15 years in developing and managing federal programs and systems designed to strengthen the nation’s emergency preparedness and management.
Published in Law and Order, Aug 2006
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