Staying Calm in a Crisis

While I was admiring the screens at an
emergency operation center (EOC), the lights flickered. The state EOC
manager glanced up and paused a few seconds. Then he relaxed and gave
me a small grin. “When the blackout hit last summer, we thought it was
just this building, a truck or something taking out a pole. Instead, it
was the entire tri-county area.

“That’s when the system proved itself,” he
continued. “It paid for itself, too. We recovered hours sooner and
saved millions and I don’t know how many lives.”

That’s what’s possible when people make the
right decisions and take the correct actions in an emergency. Managing
that response in the midst of chaos is easier now, thanks in part to
the software that’s at the heart of cutting edge critical incident
management systems (CIMS).

Advances in information technology have made
the software easier to use and more capable. Other improvements now
allow for integrated response management in situations that involve
port, railhead, cityscapes and military installations. What’s more,
some of the lessons learned from Sept. 11, 2001, are showing up in
emergency response management software, and that promises to pay
dividends in such disasters as the Asian earthquake and tsunami.

Initial containment

Mike Poth, director for public safety
solutions within Herndon, Va.-based Northrop Grumman IT (NGIT), noted
that the nature of emergency management rewards those who respond
swiftly and correctly. Often, the first few minutes or few hours are

“The key is that initial five minutes to five
hours,” said Poth. “When you see incidents on television, if that
initial response is coordinated and efficient, it helps stabilize the

Behind this assertion lies decades of NGIT
experience with all manner of incidents and emergencies. The company
provides public safety and first responder software solutions to over
120 agencies throughout North America, most of them state and local.
One of NGIT’s newest products in this area, CommandPoint, was launched
in August 2003 and is a first responder command and control system. The
suite of products includes a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system to
assist in the allocation of police, fire and emergency medical service
personnel. CommandPoint also includes a geographic information system
(GIS) so that dispatchers have an accurate representation of the local

Beyond that, Poth said that CommandPoint also
can integrate a whole range of cameras, alarms and biochemical sensors.
By capturing camera feeds, the system can show those in the EOC how
units are responding. Poth added, “If it’s a pan and zoom camera, the
actual CAD operator or someone in the EOC can even seize control of
that camera and help manage the incident.”

CommandPoint is based on the .NET framework,
which is the future direction for Microsoft’s operating systems and
products. However, Poth isn’t sure that the CommandPoint will ever go
to a Web interface for anything more than status monitoring. In
explaining why, he pointed to Chicago, a city where some 12 million
calls go through NGIT systems a year and a dispatcher may handle
thousands of transactions in a single shift. Given that volume, a web
interface would be too slow. Poth noted that many CommandPoint users
still prefer the command line because keystroke entry is faster than
pulling down a menu in a graphical user interface.

In contrast, the latest software from
Dialogic Communications Corp. (DCC) of Franklin, Tenn., called
Communicator! NXT 2.0, is entirely Web-based. Unveiled in January 2005,
the DCC product only requires that users have an Internet connection
and a browser. However, a key difference is that Communicator is a
notification system. In one mode, it alerts residents within a defined
geographic area. In the other, the system contacts first responders who
have certain skill sets, are within a given travel time or meet other
criteria, such as not having had an alcoholic drink within a certain
period of time before an incident.

“Locating those people, getting them to
qualify to meet certain criteria and getting them there knowing that
they’ve been contacted can be huge chore,” said Lorin Bristow, vice
president of DCC. “Our software automates that entire process.”

These criteria are usually set up in
templates prior to an emergency. Then, commanders in an EOC can add
what’s needed to customize the alert for a given situation and let the
software handle the actual notification. Because the system is
web-based, it can be hosted remotely. Bristow noted that many smaller
installations have a setup for their own command and control, but
contract with DCC for large events for which many residents must be
contacted and massive telephone banks employed.

Railheads and military bases

Another new software tool for first
responders is being developed as an advanced concept technology
demonstration for the Department of Defense (DoD). Dubbed Area Security
Operations Command and Control, or ASOCC, this bundle of applications
and services provides communication and collaboration to state, local
and federal organizations. Apogen Technologies of McLean, Va., installs
and maintains the system, and conducts testing and training.

Eddie DeVore, ASOCC program manager at
Apogen, noted that the system is under development and won’t become a
normal procurement item until 2006. That status, however, hasn’t kept
DoD installations from grabbing the software and putting it to use. It
has even shown up in some civilian situations, such as the 2004 Holiday
Bowl in San Diego. The final version, though, will incorporate some

For example, the system provides an alerting
module that can be replaced by another of the user’s choosing. The
alerts, said DeVore, will be broadcast throughout the ASOCC domain,
provided that the replacement alerting system adheres to some standards.

“If the alerting system will write an alert
in a CAP [common alerting protocol] format, then we pass that through,”
DeVore explained.

He added that other potential plug-and-play
modules and integration points are possible. When complete, ASOCC will
have alerting and reporting aspects, a collaboration capability with a
simulated whiteboard and mapping and GPS functions, as well as
knowledge management. At present, there’s a user base of about 300.
Some are running a combination of hardware and software over a
peer-to-peer network, while others are running a web-based version. The
system is moving to the latter configuration. Within a few months,
ASOCC will run over either private networks or the public Internet,
like other hosted applications, and be accessible to authorized users
who have a web browser.

ASOCC allows organizations to connect
directly to each other in emergencies, rather than moving up and down
command chains. A state trooper who identifies a potential terrorist
headed for a military base can get that information to affected defense
officials and vice versa. It’s also likely to become standard at DoD
installations throughout North America and perhaps worldwide, according
to DeVore and others at Apogen. Civilian jurisdictions around such
installations might look at ASOCC for that reason alone.

One company not usually associated with
software is Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) of Mountain View, Calif. The
company focuses on technical computing and is known for building
high-performance computers.

However, this hardware maker does offer some
software and services of interest to first responders and EOCs.
Consider a case where a city has a port or railhead. The combination
makes emergency management response more complex. Multiple agencies are
involved with potentially overlapping responsibilities. The situation
can be complicated, but the software solution shouldn’t be.

“It should be easily done by the cop on the
beat. The officer should be able to walk in and look at his or her data
on the fly,” said Paul Temple, senior business development manager for
homeland security, intelligence and defense programs at SGI.

Applying the lessons of 9/11

Emergency response software vendors are also
rolling out products that apply the lessons learned from 9/11. These
can be summed up in the phrase “Life goes on.” True in both a poetic
and practical sense, such continuity means a long recovery after a
major attack, disaster or accident. This recovery phase is where most
of the affected people spend the majority of their time.

Matt Walton, vice chairman and founder of Los
Angeles-based E Team Inc., said some needed software elements in his
company’s products became apparent in the wake of 9/11. First, after a
crisis, there are donations to manage as relief pours into an area. All
of those assets—money, goods, food—have to be tracked and inventoried.
Second, there’s assistance case management to consider as the suddenly
homeless and destitute seek help. There’s a requirement that agencies
ensure those in need are taken care of, but that’s only part of the

E Team has incorporated these lessons into
its crisis-management software through a series of modules. More are
planned, but the company’s revamped system was put to the test in the
San Diego wildfires of October 2003. Some 2,500 homes and businesses
were destroyed and thousands of families rendered homeless. This huge
case-management problem was, a company spokesperson asserted, very
successfully handled.

However, that situation pales in comparison
to the Asian earthquake and tsunami crisis that began the day after
Christmas 2004. Hundreds of thousands of dead have to be identified and
logged, along with like numbers of the living. Laptops equipped with
fingerprint and other biometric scanners are part of the technology
being thrown at the problem, and E Team employees were in the area
helping with the recovery efforts. Walton likened it to 9/11 in that
very little that could effectively have been done during the disaster,
given what was in place at the time.

There’s also another similarity, one that will
test the system and response management software long after the
immediate emergency is past: The process of recovery is likely to take
years and perhaps even decades. As Walton said, “There will be a very
long and complex aftermath.” HST

Counting the costs

While emergency management software and critical incident management
systems (CIMS) aren’t cheap, they can pay for themselves very quickly.
Consider the August 2003 North American blackout. Starting in the
afternoon of a summer day, the outage left tens of millions in Canada
and the United States without power. Thanks to emergency response
management software, the Michigan state emergency operations center
(SEOC) was able to bring state agencies up at least four hours faster
than would have been possible otherwise. A conservative estimate was
that the dollar savings topped $5 million in productivity and reduced
outage costs.

Dan Sibo manages the technical and
operational support section of the emergency management division within
the Michigan Department of State Police. He said the CIMS-enabled
performance was so good that it won an award from the National
Association of State Chief Information Officers for security and
business continuity in 2004.

When the blackout happened, Sibo and others
soon mapped the extent of the problem by looking at which towers in the
state police’s 800-megahertz communications system were on backup
generators. That data was added to the location of emergency
facilities, cooling centers and other points of interest. SEOC staff
entered this information into their geographic information system and
then used their E Team and CIMS to spread the picture of the situation.

“The visual display of graphic information is
huge help in getting people to understand an incident,” said Sibo. That
knowledge, in turn, led to a quicker recovery of servers and other
information technology, as well as a faster return to more normal

As a bonus, by logging requests
electronically instead of on pieces of paper, Michigan officials were
able to more effectively track where the state’s resources were going.
That same documentation helped in applying for federal disaster aid.

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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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