The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) went live in late 2016 with its collaborative emergency planning tool MARP — the Mutual Aid Resource Planner. Less than a year into the effort, DHS reports MARP is gaining traction.
Emergency planners in Michigan and Ontario, Canada, have used the tool to develop cross-border mutual aid plans. New Orleans officials have employed MARP during Flood Apex resiliency experiments.
“The tool allows us to go through all of our scenarios, to figure out targets and resource needs for tornado, hazmat, pandemic scenarios,” said Brandon Lewis, program coordinator for the Detroit/Southeast Michigan Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI). “It tracks your resource needs versus what you currently have available and it identifies your gaps.”
While emergency managers have many tools at their disposal for collaborative planning with adjacent communities, DHS says MARP differs from most others in that it is intrinsically tied to geospatial data.
As an Esri ArcGIS Online configurable template, MARP can take in city and county data on emergency resources as a function of place: Planners know not just how many fire trucks may be available, but also where they typically reside, for example.
Because ArcGIS typically incorporates data from across the civic spectrum, it can serve as a broad-based planning platform. “It provides a foundational capability where different mission applications can reside and share information with each other,” said Chris McIntosh, who leads Public Safety at Esri.
“In a hurricane response, you might have the chief of operations, the mayor, the emergency planner. The application shares information with all the players in the ecosystem, so you are not building stovepipes. You are building a collaborative environment,” McIntosh said.
DHS’ vision for MARP goes further, extending collaboration beyond the individual jurisdiction to drive more effective communications between cities, counties and regional authorities.
Under MARP, “all those users would all be connected. They would enter in their available resources and compare their unmet needs,” said DHS S&T First Responders Group (FRG) Program Manager Ron Langhelm. Such cross-jurisdictional efforts could enhance efficiencies, especially in times of crisis. “If one fire department has a surplus of resources, this helps to ensure those resources are requested and allocated by other fire departments in the proper manner, so you don’t get four people all thinking they are going to get the same resources.”
Of course, this kind of collaborative planning goes on all the time in emergency management. While DHS reports at least 400 people have looked at the MARP application since it went live, the agency does not track actual user numbers, and some in the EM community are skeptical.
“Honestly it is just another system in a field that has dozens of systems already,” said Michael Bunner, director of emergency services in Warren County, Ohio. “I just don’t have capacity for another one.”
DHS officials acknowledge there are other planning tools available, but they say MARP takes the practice to a new level.
More effective planning
Langhelm describes a not-uncommon scenario in which jurisdictions collaborate to plan for a wildfire. It’s a good plan but it is static, a paper document that doesn’t reflect real-world changes.
“Now, with an evacuation, you may have a destination, you may have done the legwork to make sure those facilities are able to receive those evacuees,” he said. “But if all you have done is identify places to go and you have had no conversations beyond that, then you get evacuees arriving to a destination and the building is locked.”
Likewise, he suggested, a typical plan might go into pretty good detail about the number of trucks that are available, but without a geospatial component, planners might fail to take into account the availability of any given transportation corridor. Conventional plans can miss geographically dependent details.
Along the same lines, a conventional mutual aid agreement may overlook critical details on the human side. “If you request a fire truck, you need a system that will make sure it shows up with the people to run the truck and make that a reality. You don’t want to get a shipment of bulldozers and not have any drivers to operate them,” Langhelm said.
His point is simply this: Conventional methodologies can’t cover all the bases the way a geospatial-based, online system can.
In Detroit’s UASI, Lewis said his experience with MARP so far has confirmed this assertion.
On the one hand, MARP gives him a new level of transparency into the assets of other nearby jurisdictions. “I can see our regional resources, and I can see what the counties bring to the table,” he said.
Beyond just assets, though, Lewis said MARP gives him visibility into the methodology of other nearby planning authorities — something he never had before. “Sometimes as planners we get locked into our own preferred way of doing things. It can be nice to see what other people are doing, to see into their methodology,” he said. “MARP can help me to see some angle I hadn’t considered before.”
MARP can do this only if users are willing to devote the time and effort to uploading their data. DHS officials caution this may be a heavy burden for some, depending on the degree to which a jurisdiction’s information already exists in digital format.
“It does require the user base to bring in their resources and make them available. That may mean importing them from an Excel list, or opening them up from another database. It is completely dependent on the user's ability to make that information available,” Langhelm said. “In some communities that information is all there already. In others, they will have to do some work to open up that access.”
Some will find it worth the effort if MARP can provide a means to streamline multiple planning programs, consolidating efforts and potentially saving resources. By taking planning online, “it's a way to override a lot of smaller one-to-one conversations to have one bigger community conversation,” Langhelm said.
The system also could help to give cities and smaller localities greater influence in the emergency planning process, when states undertake required Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) reporting for FEMA. By providing greater visibility into local needs — by literally putting local needs and resources on the map — “MARP can be a way for the local authority to have more of a voice than in the past,” he said.
Looking ahead, DHS will continue fine-tuning MARP as more users come aboard. “The last wrinkles will be based on stakeholder requirements,” Langhelm said. “This is an ongoing process and we are still in collection mode for users’ comments. We will still be making adjustments as we move forward.”