Every year Tampa Bay, Fla., hosts Gasparilla -- an outdoor event spanning approximately seven miles of roadway filled with pirates, boats, parades and more than 400,000 people.

With an event this size, emergency management personnel have learned to expect the unexpected. To keep the event sailing smoothly, preparedness, organization, collaboration and communication are imperative.

This year, Tampa tapped a new resource, E-Sponder, for help.

E-Sponder is a collaboration and communication Web portal created by Convergence Communications that provides real-time shared information during planned or unplanned events involving several large jurisdictions or agencies, said Major John Bennett of the Tampa Bay Police Department, Special Operations Division.

"We needed something to tie us all together and allow unified command structures to share information -- whether fire, police, public works, public sector, private sector -- to make the large decisions that need to be made."

E-Sponder contains a GIS component that allows users to quickly map information, a valuable tool for real-time or corrective action planning, said Bennett.

"After an event, we can look at areas that need to be reassessed for future years, and if we have a lot of localized incidents, we can look at what's causing them and create corrective action plans," he said.

Smooth Sailing

In December 2005, the Tampa Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) signed a contract to pilot E-Sponder for one year before possibly signing a long-term contract. The Tampa UASI uses E-Sponder daily and integrates all area law enforcement agencies, fire and rescue departments and emergency services, as well as city and county organizations, on a single platform.

The portal is easy to navigate and flexible, Bennett said. "One of the key benefits of E-Sponder is its ability to be on-the-fly flexible; meaning if I come into the command room and say, 'I want to see this,' but it's not built, they can amend the template right there on the spot."

Customizable templates allow users to capture the information they need most. Bennett said initial set up requires brainstorming as each department outlines its needs, but he added that once the internal hurdles are complete, the rest is straightforward.

For Gasparilla, Tampa officials tracked information from the following categories: arrests and citations; medical issues; parking tickets; tows; warnings; unplanned incidents, which includes everything that doesn't fit a category; street sign placements; missing signs; and all preplanned events such as start times, road closures -- basically any information associated with security.

With E-Sponder, users can organize data relating to all aspects of event planning and incident management, including reviewing an event afterward to examine how responses were handled and what changes can be made should the event occur again.

Additionally, entering information into E-Sponder regularly can later help in the event of a crisis -- personnel databases, contact information, equipment tracking, event costs and task lists are a few examples of information that can streamline incident management by providing data on demand.

"Nothing is going to think for you, and nothing replaces the ability to make strategies and come up with plans, but E-Sponder helps keep pace with you," Bennett said. "As long as you're feeding information into it, it partitions that information and allows other departments and jurisdictions to see what your strategies are in real time."

Emergency management personnel in the field can view the real-time information via laptops or through vehicles such as fire trucks or police cruisers equipped with a computer and Internet access.

Personnel can also view information on handheld devices. At Gasparilla, Sprint 6700 Pocket PC smart devices were used to track information, said Robert Wolf, president and CEO of Convergence Communications and an active participant at Gasparilla.

Fifteen PDAs were used in the field to directly

Sherry Watkins  |  Contributing Writer