Community Connections

More than 100 Midwest agencies will exchange emergency data through a new information sharing system.

by / December 4, 2003
Natural disasters know no boundaries. That's one reason the emergency operation centers (EOCs) in Kansas City are excited about the Metropolitan Emergency Information System (MEIS), which will enable more than 100 agencies in the bistate Kansas City region to share data.

The area has survived major flash floods, tornados and ice storms, but task managing the incidents was difficult because the EOCs had no idea what was happening outside their regions, according to Marlene Nagel, community development director for the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) of Governments, which will operate the system.

"In all of those cases, the EOCs knew what was happening in their jurisdictions, but trying to find out [what was happening] in other parts of the region so they could be prepared to provide mutual aid and respond or anticipate what might happen in their own community was difficult," Nagel said.

MARC plans to go live with the system next spring, she said, and it is hoped MEIS will become a valuable tool for first-responder organizations, private industry, public health, hospitals and other organizations to share information and communicate securely via the Internet.

In the case of a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, the system gives emergency responders and public officials Internet access to emergency response plans in different jurisdictions so personnel are on the same page before, during and after an incident.

"Really it's not for emergency," said Col. Tim Daniel, homeland security adviser to Missouri Gov. Bob Holden. "It's for the collaboration that occurs beforehand, so everybody can be better prepared."

A Proven Success
The system is a knockoff of one already proven successful in Kansas City in managing capital construction and maintenance programs. Its backbone is Apex Innovations' i-Info software, a Web-based application for interagency and enterprise-wide information sharing. The system includes applications for emergency management and project management.

One basic function of MEIS is to house various information for emergency responders and public-safety personnel. That allows MARC to store contact information on individuals and organizations, and make that information available to everyone hooked up to the system.

"We're working on a personnel accountability system to manage personnel at large incidents," Nagel said. "This database of emergency contacts and personnel will allow us to issue badges through the system and manage who has what certifications and skills to perform various tasks at the scene of a large incident."

Knowing who is trained to do what allows incident commanders to make informed decisions and quickly assemble teams of qualified people, such as hazardous materials teams, by sending out a page or e-mail to the lead contacts for those teams.

Plans call for issuing cards with bar codes to emergency personnel in the region, so incident commanders can track who's at the scene of an incident, their credentials and their area of expertise to help manage information about personnel and emergency contacts, Nagel said.

The system will also function as a reference guide by providing information on local and regional response plans, or the protocols on how to handle a dirty bomb or crime scene preservation, Nagel said.

The system will include databases with information such as where hazardous chemicals are stored by industry and aerial photographs. It will also include information on the availability of emergency assets, which for instance, will enable personnel on the scene to get their hands on multiple generators in the area, if need be. In addition, a program called "Plan Bulldozer" will coordinate how area construction companies can make heavy equipment available in an emergency.

"Let's say there's a need for heavy search and rescue capability, underwater rescue team or some other specialized set of skills," Nagel said. "That information will be in the inventory database. So by using the search feature, folks would be able to look for the kind of asset or resource they need, and then it would give them a description of it and instructions on how to use it."

Finally, MEIS will include a patient tracking system for hospitals and emergency medical personnel.

Mobile Command Posts
Emergencies will be managed primarily by incident commanders at mobile command posts, according to Nagel.

"If there's a large-scale incident, our protocols in this area usually call for setting up a command center, whether it's out of a vehicle or a building," she said. "There would be Internet access, either wireless or hard wired, they could use for incident command."

The initial investment was $95,000, which came from a federal Metropolitan Medical Response System public health service grant. The next phase will be funded through a combination of philanthropic dollars ($250,000 has already been pledged) and federal grant money from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The total cost of the next phase is expected to be around $850,000.

Eventually agencies that use the system will be required to pay "modest" user fees, Nagel said.

"We see it as a public/private effort," she said. "We expect this system, over time, will allow both public and private agencies that need to communicate before, during and following an emergency situation to share information and communicate."

The system requires a broadband connection to work, and the hope is that larger organizations with broadband access will join and smaller entities will upgrade their technology over time, she said.

The concept of connecting communities has been a long time coming, according to Col. Daniel.

"From my perspective, we've been looking for ways to expand situational awareness in a collaborative environment," he said. "It can only be a positive in terms of getting at the complexity inherent in homeland security and putting together collaborative work groups to provide a true regional perspective and to allow these groups to decide what can be done and what needs to be done."
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor