All Hands on Deck

Web-based technology assists collaboration and communication in event planning and emergency management.

by / March 31, 2006
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 enter incidents into the system, as well as track personnel in the field, similar to a time clock system.

Most of the data within E-Sponder comes from users either in communications centers or in the field. At Gasparilla, for example, entries were made from the field that tracked arrests in real time. Dispatchers both on-scene and in various 911 centers also added information directly to E-Sponder.

"The value of the system is that no matter how many different groups, communications centers or agencies involved -- we can keep them all on the same page," Wolf said.

Should Internet access become unavailable during a serious emergency, E-Sponder contains some store-and-forward capabilities that allow forms and lists to be saved locally and then uploaded once connectivity is restored. Still, Wolf said, Internet access is usually the first resource restored in the event of a major disaster.

"Unlike a voice network or a cell network, in the case of a major scale incident such as a hurricane, using a briefcase satellite link will get you connected in minutes," he said.

At Gasparilla, emergency personnel used several different types of Internet connectivity: Sprint and Verizon Evolution Data Optimized (EVDO) network cards, satellite connectivity provided by the U.S. Navy, DSL service and the city's internal network. With redundant connections, no single failure will cause an outage, but as a Web portal, the system relies on Internet connectivity for full functionality.

Mapping It Out
The E-Sponder platform is built on Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server 2003.

"We chose SharePoint for the main reason that users inherently know how to use it -- file, print, edit, save -- and they can sit down and interact with the system with just a few minute's training," said Wolf, who added that SharePoint solved a large portion of customers' needs right out of the box.

To create E-Sponder, Convergence Communications expanded upon the technology, and also offers customization tailored to fit each customer's requirements. E-Sponder provides alert broadcasting to individuals through e-mail, Short Message Service, pager, or cell phone, which allow instant connection to an unlimited number of individuals..

In addition, the company partnered with ESRI to integrate GIS technology with E-Sponder, primarily ESRI's ArcWeb Services and ArcIMS technologies.

"There's a large amount of GIS data available, however, in an emergency or incident, you never quite know what you need," said Wolf. "We've enabled our solution to interact with the ESRI data so a user can display existing data elements on a map as they normally would, but can create lists and groups on the fly within E-Sponder that would automatically appear as a layer in the map."

For example, Wolf said, during Hurricane Katrina, assisted-living facilities needed to be evacuated by first responders.

"We would have the ability to create a list of those facilities within our system and automatically display the list in conjunction with all of the existing GIS data in real time, ad hoc."

All Aboard
While Tampa's E-Sponder portal is localized to the Tampa UASI region, Wisconsin implemented its own portal that functions as a statewide emergency management tool. The state elected to make E-Sponder available to all of its 72 counties and 1,850 local jurisdictions.

"We will use it as an emergency operations management software to help coordinate how we manage an incident or event within the state," said William Clare, planning section supervisor in Wisconsin Emergency Management.

He said Wisconsin agencies will store and access plans, track and request resources and send out alerts and alarms.

"By implementing E-Sponder, we're providing something at no cost to other agencies that they can access via the Internet to help them manage that event," Clare stated. "Should they choose to use it, we would all be using the same system, the same language, and coordinate what we're doing at each of those levels better."

Wisconsin is a home-rule state, which means emergency management remains at the local level -- the state never takes over an event or incident. E-Sponder creates a way for agencies at each level to command what's happening, and allows others to follow each situation as it unfolds.

E-Sponder's GIS component lets Wisconsin emergency management agencies communicate with each other more effectively than by phone or e-mail.

"If you're trying to describe a location or something that's on a map, that becomes very challenging," said Clare, noting that looking at the same picture keeps everyone on the same page.

In addition, Wisconsin's E-Sponder's GIS component can be integrated with emergency operations center software to perform plume modeling, or buffering around a hazardous situation. In the event of a hazardous materials leak, emergency management agencies can quickly identify schools, hospitals and nursing homes within the predicted endangered area.

For example, if six schools reside in the plume, the information about the schools, such as names, contact information, number of students on hand, and teachers and administrative staff present would become tabular information in the GIS map layer. Once discovered and added to E-Sponder, that information can be viewed by other emergency management agencies responding to the crisis.

"The reason we went with E-Sponder is it allows for us to provide the capability for county and local unities of government and local response agencies to use this all at the same time," said Clare. "We can all use the system to manage the same event or multiple events, and in doing so, have a common operating language. With Wisconsin structured as a home-rule state, this system lent itself to that really well."

For Tampa, knowing what role other emergency management agencies are playing during an event increases efficiency, Bennett said.

"Anytime you can trim down walls of silo operations and start having total interoperability in incident management, the processes get better."
Sherry Watkins Contributing Writer