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Information Sharing More Critical Than Ever amid the Coronavirus

One thing that remains clear is the urgent need for close coordination and information sharing between emergency management and public safety agencies, the public and private health communities, the private sector, and across the “whole of government.

Among the many new technologies and tools being developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate is the Regional Information Sharing Platform to provide regional situational awareness. 
The novel Coronavirus pandemic, also referred to as COVID-19, has upended the lives of everyone and placed unprecedented demands on emergency management and public safety agencies around the world. Although impacting the entire globe, each locality works independently to keep its own communities safe and to enable an effective response to the pandemic. 
One thing that remains clear is the urgent need for close coordination and information sharing between emergency management and public safety agencies, the public and private health communities, the private sector, and across the “whole of government.” The pandemic also highlights the need for increased coordination and information sharing across jurisdictional borders.
As the research and development arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) funds new technologies and leverages existing ones for use by first responders and other DHS components.  Among the areas S&T funds are communications interoperability, information sharing programs and tools. One such tool is the Regional Information Sharing Platform (RISP) in a partnership with the Central United States Earthquake Consortium (CUSEC).  
The RISP was developed to provide regional situational awareness and information sharing capabilities to CUSEC states before, during, and after disasters, such as earthquakes. CUSEC, based in Memphis, Tenn., is one of several multi-state earthquake planning and preparedness organizations supported by FEMA and the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP). During the 2011 National Level and CAPSTONE 2014 exercises, CUSEC began working with S&T to develop the first iterations of a regional common operating picture. 
As an identified after-action item from CAPSTONE-14, CUSEC and S&T continued to work collaboratively to improve multi-state information sharing capabilities, including the development of the RISP.  In 2019, the RISP was used as a central component of FEMA’s Shaken Fury exercise, providing near-real time situational awareness on community lifelines, including power outages, gas station status and fuel availability, communications status, and business open/close status from the Single Automated Business Exchange for Reporting (SABER). In addition to providing situational awareness, the RISP also housed key reporting and mobile tools to assist agencies in their simulated response and recovery efforts. 
Since its founding after 9/11, S&T has focused its efforts on developing and implementing technologies, platforms, and best practices for ensuring that first responders and emergency management leaders can communicate with each other during disasters of all kinds—natural, manmade, and now a global pandemic. S&T continues to place emphasis on communications interoperability and information sharing programs; this includes providing stakeholders with better tools for situational awareness, data access, and decision support as well as helping them efficiently communicate with each other during emergencies.
More than a tool for use during exercises, the capabilities within the RISP have been used to support real-world disaster response by CUSEC states in the last several years. Because many of its features have been automated—displaying and reporting county-by-county power outages, for example—states are able to incorporate data and reports from the RISP into their own incident management and situational awareness tools. This enables emergency managers to spend less time gathering information from multiple sources and more time on coordinating and delivering resources to impacted areas. 
With the COVID-19 pandemic, a much-needed awareness of the importance of sharing accurate information has begun to take center-stage, as highlighted by emergency managers’ and first responders’ need to find relevant information related to health and medical lifelines. This information includes hospital operating status and capabilities, PPE status and inventory numbers, and other vital information to make timely decisions in response operations. This is where technology such as RISP can be leveraged. As the pandemic continues to spread and impact communities across the nation, CUSEC and S&T are utilizing RISP technologies to support information sharing and decision making at the state and regional levels. 
“As the response to the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up, states have been engaged in similar activities that we’d expect during a regional disaster, such as an earthquake,” Jim Wilkinson, Executive Director of CUSEC, noted.“Regardless of the hazard or disaster, technologies within the CUSEC RISP can be used to share information across state lines. Several of our states have used the RISP to share information with one another during the pandemic. Because of support from S&T,CUSEC has been able to work with our statesto improve their response by creating pandemic specific dashboards and identifying and automating processes and tools to gather and share information.” 
Brian Blake, associate director of CUSEC, explained how the RISP’s success in past response efforts made it a logical choice for the COVID-19 response. “The idea behind the RISP has always been to enable states to share information with one another and to support regional situational awareness. The data being shared can be used for decision making at the local, state, or federal levels. Using the technologies within the RISP, especially the automation tools we’ve developed with S&T support, CUSEC states are in a better position to identify shortfalls and develop solutions to address those gaps.” 
According to Ron Langhelm, the S&T program manager for RISP, every new event results in new and innovative requirements. “This is exactly what RISP was created for -- quickly enabling data collection and dissemination for an emergency event. For example, with the tools used to conduct field surveys following an earthquake or other natural disaster, information about the severity and extent of damage can be published and recorded into the RISP in real time. With the same technology, we can edit the interface, and utilize it for tracking PPE resources and requirements, empowering staff to walk though hospitals and take inventory. The core tools to facilitate the effort already exist and require a minor modification to address the COVID-19 response.
This is where building trust across disciplines, jurisdictions and states comes into play. On the healthcare side, sharing medical and personally identifiable information is prohibited by laws such as HIPAA.This doesn’t mean, however, that aggregated information, such as number of cases, testing locations, PPE shortfalls, etc. cannot be shared between public health officials and the emergency managers who are tasked with finding and adjudicating the resources necessary to combat the virus. Now, more than ever, states are focusing on using authoritative data and situational awareness tools, such as geographic information systems (GIS) and technologies in the RISP to speed the decision-making process. In a way, the need for information sharing caused by the current crises underscores how the effective use of technology is creating a cultural shift in the public safety community.
CUSEC’s initiative to leverage the RISP during the COVID-19 pandemic prompted some states to reach out to the S&T support team with requests for assistance. According to Erik Endrulat, who is also part of G&H’s S&T support team, “One advantage of S&T’s program with CUSEC is the ability to have a more national view of technology solutions that already exist and can be adapted or enhanced to address each state’s needs.”
For example, requests came from Alabama and Idaho, where their GIS staff reached out for help related to web-based emergency operations center (WebEOC) to track and manage PPE resources. While the S&T support team has worked with Web EOC and other incident management tools, they knew from past experience that Kentucky has significantly advanced the use of those tools. So the S&T team connected the Kentucky Web EOC administration with Alabama’s, and both states were happy to collaborate and share their best practices. In Idaho, the knowledge of other solutions, as well as personal connections developed from prior exercises and response activities, resulted in finding a solution to help them plan mitigation activities.
According to Endrulat, “The interstate sharing of resources and capabilities is a really important function of CUSEC in an event like this. We have all these tools, but it’s really…those relationships that CUSEC helps to connect people to identify solutions and share solutions. So, these tools help them, but it’s really the relationships that are just as important, if not more so.”
Now more than ever, it is clear that more focus should be placed on information sharing for emergency response and recovery. Often, a great piece of technology fails if it is not compatible, interoperable, or cannot access right kind of information. There are various information sharing tools available to state and local agencies, the RISP being one of them. The challenge continues to be building trust and maintaining partnerships across all levels of government to leverage those tools, so that information sharing occurs seamlessly when it’s needed the most. 
With leadership and adaptability, CUSEC has demonstrated in the face of COVID-19, a great deal of progress has been made and has led to states outside of the region exploring membership options with CUSEC to benefit from capabilities like the RISP.S&T, together with its partners such as CUSEC, remain committed to working together to address the challenges posed by man-made or natural disasters such as the current pandemic and beyond. 
Dr. David J Alexander serves as the Senior Science Advisor for Resilience.