Disaster Management Interoperability: An IT Backbone for Emergency Responders

In mid-September 2003, Hurricane Isabel slammed into the Atlantic coast, leaving a path of destruction that extended from the Outer Banks of North Carolina and westward to the Appalachians. In Charlottesville, VA, roads were closed due to flooding and...


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In mid-September 2003, Hurricane Isabel slammed into the Atlantic coast, leaving a path of destruction that extended from the Outer Banks of North Carolina and westward to the Appalachians. In Charlottesville, VA, roads were closed due to flooding and debris, power lines sagged and snapped under the weight of branches from downed trees, and many of our residents sat in darkness for a week until power was finally restored.

Fire, rescue and police worked tirelessly to respond to a record number of emergency calls, restore order and ensure the safety of our citizens. It is an understatement to say that we were busy. At the time, technology was the last thing on my mind; today, it would be one of the first.

Like all of the firefighters, EMTs and police who responded to this emergency, we faced a monumental task. Yet one of our greatest challenges was keeping teams updated and coordinated. During the storm, we lacked the ability to keep current on road closures, river flood levels, power outages and property damage. Along with deficient situational awareness, our planning was likewise hindered by the lack of weather data and real-time situation reports from nearby jurisdictions.

We were largely on our own to face whatever the storm doled out, and when it had passed, we relied on radios, Nextel Direct Connect and hand-written reports to coordinate our response. While most local jurisdictions of fire, police and rescue have computers and access to the Internet, there is virtually no common system that enables us to coordinate activities and obtain shared access to the same information, especially mapping related information.

Fortunately, there is a better alternative that allows emergency responders to stay connected, access and share information, and communicate locally and nationally.

Part of the Disaster Management e-Gov initiative, the Disaster Management Interoperability Services (DMIS) program was developed to ensure that emergency response organizations across the country can communicate and share information related to an incident. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is now part of the Department of Homeland Security, ensured that DMIS met several key requirements: it must be simple to use; compatible with most computers and proprietary software systems; and available at no cost to first responders.

What is DMIS?

Think of DMIS as a nationwide “electronic backbone” that securely links any first responder with an Internet-connected computer. Through DMIS, users can access automated collaboration tools, such as geographic maps, weather data, a private instant message/chat capability, and the capability to seek and track material assistance from other organizations.

If the Charlottesville Fire Department had used DMIS during Hurricane Isabel, we could have reviewed incident reports from other jurisdictions also in the path of the storm and analyzed weather data to look for trends, such as increasing wind velocities, property damage and rising river levels. These capabilities would have helped us to better anticipate the fury of the storm and to plan accordingly.

In addition, DMIS could have been used to track road closures and share listings of detours with area fire, rescue and police dispatchers. Such a tool would have eliminated duplicative response efforts and helped to expedite the clean-up operation, and might have improved safety for responders and the public alike.

DMIS also offers the unique capability to operate off-line in the event that the network is down or the user’s computer becomes disconnected from the Internet. Through a capability called “mirroring,” DMIS enables users to continue working off-line, performing functions such as capturing incident report data. When the network connection is re-established, DMIS automatically updates the information and downloads any new inputs.

A Catalyst for Progression

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