Disaster Management Interoperability: An IT Backbone for Emergency Responders

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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

Based on our experience in Charlottesville, the process of implementing DMIS has led to a number of positive changes as to how we use technology.

As part of a community of first responders, we will use the system to collect and share information about an ever-broadening range of topics. Our fire department will be able to learn from others and pass information along through the DMIS listservs and message boards.

During the DMIS training, which was provided to us by a Program Management Office staff member, we recognized that in order for DMIS to provide the most value, we needed to make it part of our daily routine. We quickly found that DMIS is not hard to use and we have planned weekly exercises to ensure that the system becomes second-nature. As a by-product of this renewed emphasis on training, we will become less reactive and more focused on preparing for situations.

Finally, DMIS has opened our eyes to new technologies that can complement and enhance the system for the needs of our community. We had been reluctant to purchase large-scale software systems for the Charlottesville Fire Department, fearing that our technology would become incompatible with other jurisdictions. However, because DMIS is compatible with many proprietary emergency response systems, we plan to interface DMIS with other software tools, which may include Blue 292, Web-EOC, and CAMEO/MARPLOT. With this interface capability, DMIS would enhance the value of these software systems while serving as a backbone to provide basic interoperability between other emergency first responders in our region. Eventually, our regional plans will interface DMIS with Web-EOC and CAMEO/MARPLOT.

Only one DMIS software package is needed within each locality, providing interoperability between area first responder agencies. What’s more, DMIS is a national backbone, so we will be part of a much larger community that shares common goals: to serve the public and save lives.

We are implementing DMIS and are new to the system, but the decision to move forward with the installation was a good one. DMIS has not cost our department a dime, yet we will solve our interoperability challenge while having access to vast amounts of information and technical resources. DMIS will be an integral element of our comprehensive interoperability strategy.

The importance of this solution in the context of terrorism cannot be over-stated. Already, DMIS has been used in response to more than 40 real-world incidents, including chemical spills and suspected chemical and biological attacks (all of these threats proved to be hoaxes or accidents). While we know that another “Isabel” is inevitable, we will be better equipped to weather the storm.

For more information about DMIS or to register, please access www.cmi-services.org or telephone 800-451-2647. Charles Werner, a Firehouse® contributing editor and the TechZone editor for Firehouse.com, is a 28-year veteran of the fire service and currently serves as the deputy fire chief for the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. Werner also is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Communications Committee, chair of the IAFC Technology Advisory Group, technology chair/webmaster for the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association, communications coordinator for the National Fire Academy Alumni Association and webmaster for the National Incident Management System Consortium. In addition, he serves as the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Interoperability Coordinator. His e-mail address is wernerc@charlottesville.org.

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