Technology Is Critical

Technology is the key to Montgomery County's new EOC, according to Freeman. "Technology is very important in terms of providing the support needed to manage any type of incident," he said. "It moved us from the Dark Ages into the 21st century. We now have departments talking to each other and working together, and that's a very good thing."

In addition, technology gives Montgomery County EOC personnel a comprehensive view of events during an emergency. Behind that view are numerous other systems, from computer-aided dispatch and patient tracking applications to resources lists.

"In the past, we knew each of those, but we knew them separately," said Freeman. "Now, through technology, you have access to all of them at the same time. You can integrate them so you can perform analysis across the board. So if your computer-aided dispatch system is tasking for a particular event, or something bad has happened and it's responding to it, the system can simultaneously access resource lists to tell us things like how many hospital beds we have available to treat those affected. And it's reflecting what's already been thought out in terms of how you step through the process of decision-making in those circumstances."

GIS is particularly significant, according to Freeman. The EOC now can take a GIS map and zoom in on a block to see what resources staff members have on hand for that location. For example, they may see they have access to a live camera at an intersection, architectural files of a building or iPIX photos of a building's interior. They can then incorporate those things to better help them respond to a situation.

They also can use real-time images from a live camera carried to the scene by a helicopter or plane and overlay existing GIS data on the screen with the live picture. Or they can retrieve pictures of buildings or rooms from various databases, put them on a computer screen and draw on them like a whiteboard. Satellite photos, maps, building footprints, floor plans or photos of individual rooms can be rapidly navigated.

Using GIS, Montgomery County EOC personnel can actually see an apparatus, such as an ambulance, moving to an incident in real time.

"From the point of view of emergency management, GIS is one of the most powerful tools you can have," said Mike Byrne, director of Justice and Public Safety at Microsoft. "Anything that can happen before, during or after an incident has one thing in common -- it occupies a space and place in time. No tool gives you a better overall picture or true scope of the incident better than GIS. If you are just looking at data, it can look like a jumbled mess. There's something about a map and the picture a map can paint that the human mind is able to wrap around and understand."

Byrne, a former New York City firefighter who worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in New York on 9/11, said the tools implemented by Montgomery County would have been valuable on that fateful day. "Having this type of technology on Sept. 11 would have made things more efficient. This type of system gives you the kind of awareness of the whole event as it's unfolding that allows you to make good decisions or task the people who know each area the best with making decisions. Before, you were flying by the seat of your pants trying to make the best decision you could, but your picture was incomplete."

Saving Lives and Resources

Changes to Montgomery County's emergency operations have not come without challenges. Getting 13 disparate public safety, transportation and 911 emergency call center entities housed within the new operations center to work together and subscribe to the

Justine Brown  |  Contributing Writer