No time to lose

“First responders are always operating in new terrain. You can never be sure where the next crisis will be, or what you’ll encounter there,” Walt Pegram, district resource officer of the Spokane, Wash., Police Department, told HSToday. “For that reason, we’re always looking for tools to make data actionable when you have no time to lose.”

Having the right such tools is critical to navigating dangerous situations effectively. In fact, it can be—and often is—a matter of life and death. Over the past several years, a key focus of innovation in first response technology has been on developing real time situational awareness tools that bring together all the relevant data needed to help police, fire fighters and emergency medical workers make informed decisions on the spot.

Emergency decisions under fire

“I don’t think there’s a single first responder who doesn’t to this day relive the nightmare images of the Columbine school shootings and cringe at how behind the curve, how slow and reactive, decisionmaking was in those crucial minutes and seconds,” Pegram said. “It wasn’t the police’s fault. They simply lost precious time trying to figure out what was going on amidst all the accounts and rumors.”

One of the catalysts for changing that, said Pegram, is situational awareness technology. To avoid a future Columbine, the Spokane police department employs a tool called Rapid Responder from Seattle, Wash.-based Prepared Response Inc., which provides department responders with instant access to geographic, architectural and other data immediately. The information is directly relevant to taking action and making decisions in the emergency environments they’re about to enter.

The way that works in practice was dramatically demonstrated one day when a distraught student entered a Spokane high school, barricaded himself into a room and began firing.

“In the past,” Pegram said, “our responders would have rushed to the building and have to attempt to piece together relevant data from a profusion of accounts and rumors.” In this case, however, a safety officer immediately downloaded into a handheld device the school floor plans, including a schematic of the whole school and a floor plan of the room where the gunman was barricaded. All this data plus a full map of entrances and exits was relayed to the team en route to the building. Using that data, they had the room locked down within 12 minutes of the original call. By then, all the children had been evacuated to a safe location. The system had also been able to calculate which areas of surrounding fields and highways were visible to the shooter and a list of the most critical nearby roadblocks to cut off potential escape routes.

According to Pegram, situational awareness tools like Rapid Response are invaluable in dire emergencies like a school shooting or hostage situation, but are also useful in more everyday events. “We had a case where kids at a school had broken a fire pipe, and gallons of water came pouring out,” he recalled. “No one could find the maintenance crew and no one knew where to shut the water off. Our responders were able to download the specs of the building and find out just how to shut the water off.”

3D maps=instant assessment

Another event that haunts the minds of first responders is Hurricane Katrina. Here, too, one promising legacy of the tragedy was an increased determination to use technology to enable emergency managers to make faster, better decisions. One was the project Virtual Alabama, based on geospatial imaging technology.

“After Katrina Gov. [Bob] Riley had us take photos of every area of the Alabama coast,” recalled Alabama Homeland Security Director Jim Walker, “and when we’d done that, he said: ‘Well, how does it compare to the coastal records before the storm?’ We discovered we were unable to come up with them. In fact we had no idea exactly how many images we had or where they were stored. The governor said: ‘That’s not good enough.’ We’ve spent millions of dollars flying planes over every part of the state yet we have no time series data to show for it.”

For $150,000, the state obtained an enterprise license and enough hardware and software from Google Earth to develop a website that makes information available on a password-protected basis to state, county and city agencies. The three-dimensional mapping system contains uploaded data from all 67 counties in the state, including tax maps, utility lines, tax records, weather forecast and data feeds, live cams from highways and public buildings, even road signs, fire hydrants and building layouts.

“Say there was a chlorine tanker overturned on the Interstate 565 near Huntsville, and there was a gas leak,” Walker said. “Within seconds, we could map out, based on real time wind flow and other data, which parts of the city would need to be evacuated first. … It took a while to get every county and agency to participate,” Walker added, “but once you have all that data deployable on demand it radically changes the way data can be made actionable to solve problems that used to take far more time. Now, whenever a firefighter goes into a building, you can make sure [he has] detailed specs of every environmental contaminant in the area, potential chemical explosives, a complete floor plan, the exact location and layout of the entire physical plant and electrical infrastructure. It makes a huge difference in people’s lives.”

A case in point, he said, occurred in March 2007 when there was a tornado in Alabama that tore through many towns. Within 10 hours of the end of the storm, the state was able to update images of every property in the region hit by the storm, allowing every destroyed or damaged home to be immediately identified.

“Before,” Walker said, “we’d have had…cars driving all over the state for months before we had all that information. That means damage assessments and the processing of repair funds can be done dramatically faster. Never again will we have any Alabama citizens living in FEMA trailers.”

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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