Full Interoperability Means More Than Just Voice

Geospatial data can be an essential part of emergency management.

by / May 16, 2008 0

Though voice communications have been the focus of interoperability funding since 9/11, state homeland security programs are beginning to expand their focus to include data and information. The National Governors Association identified interoperable communications as the top priority for fiscal 2007.

Interoperability has typically been interpreted as -- and grant funding has typically been spent on -- voice communications, such as radios and related equipment. However, in fiscal 2007 the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began placing greater emphasis on data, including geospatial data and information interoperability, as well as the tools to move data between municipal departments, communities and other agencies and entities, such as hospitals, blood banks, and human and animal shelters.

The doctrine of the National Response Framework calls for common organizational structures and capabilities that are scalable, flexible and adaptable for diverse operations, and facilitate interoperability and improve operational coordination. As DHS funding resources decrease and the emphasis shifts from purchasing products to planning and preparedness, the value of information sharing becomes vital.

All disasters are local, and initial response requires local resources. Therefore, local information and locally managed interoperable information systems are critical assets for disaster planning, preparedness, response and recovery. Most data needed during a disaster or emergency is geospatial. In providing for homeland security, location is of paramount importance. The first questions typically asked are:

o Where is it?
o What's in the area that I need to know about?
o How do I get there?

The central conclusion of the 2007 National Academy of Sciences report Successful Response Starts with a Map: Improving Geospatial Support for Disaster Management is that geospatial data and tools should be an essential part of all emergency management aspects -- from events planning, through response and recovery, to the mitigation of future events.

The DHS recognizes the important contribution that geospatial information and technology play in emergency management and disaster response. Federal, state and local organizations have increasingly incorporated geospatial data, information and technologies as emergency management tools and homeland security applications. Geospatial systems improve the overall capability of IT applications and systems to enhance public security and emergency preparedness and efficient response to all hazards, including natural and manmade disasters.

State homeland security strategy plans often include objectives that strive for enhancement of GIS capabilities in support of the all-hazards approach. As part of the incident management tool set, GIS allows emergency managers to quickly and accurately visualize patterns of activity, map locations, model potential hazards and put emergency situations into geospatial context. Communities across the United States have or are building GIS capability, resulting in essential geospatial data resources. This is a critical asset for preparedness, planning, response, situation awareness, resource asset status and tracking, decision support and disaster recovery.

Interoperability is the ability of two or more systems (and the people and functions they support) to share data and tools effectively and seamlessly, independent of location, data models, technology platform, terminologies, etc. Interoperable communications are essential elements of planning, preparedness, response and recovery, so those who need the information receive it, at the right time and in the correct format. For example, in establishing Massachusetts' State Interoperability Executive Committee via Executive Order 493, Gov. Deval Patrick recognized the need to "Enable emergency response agencies and other stakeholders to exchange critical communications and data with one another, permitting them to work together effectively and efficiently to prevent, respond to and recover from domestic incidents, regardless of cause, size or complexity."

The lack of consistent policy for collaboration, together with protocols and structures for coordination and communication, has long been a challenge to effective collaboration, sharing and reuse of geospatial data and tools

among all government levels. A critical requirement for emergency preparedness, response and mitigation is to have rapid access to the most accurate, up-to-date geospatial content, whether it is current wind speed and direction, hospital locations, damage assessment data or predictive flood model results.

In addition to knowledge of the event's location, essential data would include other critical information about the impacted area, the nature of impact and locations of key assets, such as shelters, disaster equipment and potential responders. Without this information and the tools necessary to share and collaborate on what it means to effect appropriate decisions, the eventual detrimental impacts of the event will likely be greater than necessary, whether measured in loss of life, injury, damage to property or disruption of essential activities.

Funding Preparedness
DHS funding to states and communities used for planning and preparedness for a terrorist attack or major disaster has remained steady or declined over the past four years, and it appears the trend will continue in fiscal 2008. Based on President George W. Bush's fiscal 2009 requests, overall funding for the State Homeland Security Grant Program could be 79 percent less for fiscal 2008.

Due to reductions in preparedness funding, the majority of local emergency management organizations will soon not be able to afford often pricey, commercial incident management products and solutions. Therefore, it behooves communities to use their limited funding resources to more creatively develop or enhance planning and preparedness capabilities, including becoming more interoperable with neighboring communities. Many communities still face obstacles in developing interoperable voice communications between police, fire, emergency medical services and public works departments. Even greater obstacles exist for data and information interoperability between community, regional and state agencies.

The diminishing of all-hazards preparedness funding is strapping local communities to the point where it creates a "necessity is the mother of invention" situation. It becomes necessary for communities to use their limited funding resources more imaginatively in developing or enhancing planning and preparedness capabilities, including becoming more interoperable with neighboring communities, other agencies and critical response organizations.

The DHS has invested extensively in good basic incident management software applications that are available at no cost. To qualify for DHS funding, a concept outlined in this article will need to be designed and developed in accordance with Federal Interoperable Communications Grant Guidance and the DHS Homeland Security Grant Program -- Supplemental Resource: Geospatial Guidance.

The Disaster Management Interoperable Information System (DMIIS) will provide participating towns, agencies and other resources with a cost-effective capability for enhanced situation awareness, disaster response, resource request and allocation, and a collaborative environment for training and exercises. In addition, the system will incorporate proven technology designed to use message content standards, a town and region may have interoperable capability with similar systems in other towns and regions.

The platform for communicating text and geospatial data uses the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) message content standard. CAP standardizes the content of alerts and notifications across all hazards (i.e., natural, technological, human caused and hazardous materials).

CAP-compliant systems that have developed an interface to the DHS's freely provided Disaster Management Open Platform for Emergency Networks (DM-OPEN) allow CAP application programming interfaces to communicate with each other. DM-OPEN is a proven technology and provides an interoperability backbone that acts as a "level playing field" to allow disparate third-party applications, systems, networks and devices share information in a nonproprietary,

open yet secure standards-based format. As federal infrastructure, DM-OPEN is designed to support the delivery of real-time data and situation awareness to public emergency responders in the field, at operations centers and across all levels of response management.

Where military installations are part of the regional picture, the same interoperable information systems have been successfully demonstrated for moving incident response information between civilian and military domains.

Cost Effectiveness
One of the principal design criteria of the DMIIS is cost effectiveness. The interoperable platform for data and information communications will use the DHS's Disaster Management Interoperability Services (DMIS) tools to extend incident management and information exchange capabilities to jurisdictions that lack another feasible solution. The free software provides a good basic capability that enables the emergency management community to securely share text and geospatial digital information. By providing information sharing capabilities, tools and supporting infrastructures, DMIS installations help local/regional practitioners better prepare for, respond to and recover from emergencies and day-to-day operations.

DMIS supports one of the president's 24 e-government interagency initiatives established by the Office of Management and Budget. DMIS and DM-OPEN are proven technologies that provide a cost-effective solution enabling communications between municipal departments, municipalities and other organizations, municipalities and regions, state emergency management agencies, public health departments, etc. DMIS plans for and manages incidents and focuses on local needs and control.

DMIS will soon have the capability to interface with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's HazCollect, which provides an automated capability to streamline the creation, authentication, collection and dissemination of non-weather emergency messages quickly and securely. DMIS is also expected to incorporate resource messaging and Hospital AVailability Exchange (HAVE) standards. These new standards, which are near completion, will provide DM-OPEN with more information exchange capabilities relevant to emergency management.

DMIIS is based on essentially the same DMIS/DM-OPEN model that was identified as one of the most promising new technologies successfully demonstrated in Trial 3.27 of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstration 2007. Trial 3.27 won the top award in its category from the International Association of Emergency Managers for Technology and Innovation.

At the time this article was written, DMIS was under review by the DHS and FEMA to determine the technical, economic and operational feasibility for recommended enhancements and improvements.

Another no-cost solution that has emerged is Sahana, an open source disaster management system. Unlike DMIS, Sahana is a Web-based collaboration tool that addresses common coordination problems during a disaster, such as finding missing people, managing aid, organizing volunteers, and tracking refuge camps effectively between government groups, nongovernmental organizations and victims. Sahana is an integrated set of pluggable, Web-based disaster management applications that provide solutions to large-scale humanitarian problems during the disaster aftermath. The application's scale may be a major distinction from DMIS, which is perhaps better suited for managing incidents at the local and regional levels.

Ric Skinner Contributing Writer
Ric Skinner, GIS professional, is an independent health-care preparedness and health geographics consultant doing business as The Stoneybrook Group in Sturbridge, Mass. Links: www.healthGISguy.com and www.linkedin.com/in/ricskinner.