To the Rescue

Montgomery County, Md., used GIS and other applications to reinvent and improve its Emergency Operations Center.

by / January 26, 2005
Montgomery County, Md., is in a unique position. The county's proximity to Washington, D.C., means it -- along with other nearby counties -- shares responsibility for helping protect the center of American government and responding to emergencies, including terrorist or bio-terrorist events, as well as natural disasters.

Yet the county's Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was located in a converted basement and offered little space and limited resources, restricting its ability to respond to emergencies effectively.

Last year, Montgomery County approved plans to build a new public safety communications center designed to house a 911 call center, police dispatch, fire dispatch, a transportation management center, a transit management center and several other entities. Knowing the EOC could benefit from the new facilities and interaction with each of these entities, county officials lobbied to move the EOC into the facility as well.

"If we could integrate the EOC with all the services being placed in the new facility, we could all talk to each other and see each other daily," said Bob Freeman, Montgomery County's EOC operations manager. "A major problem in government is that entities often don't interact like they should. In order to respond effectively to a major emergency, all entities have to work as a team. We saw this as an opportunity to help accomplish that."

New Facilities/New Capabilities
County officials eventually obtained permission to move the EOC into the new building, providing them more space and access to better resources. At the same time, members of the EOC saw the move as an opportunity to improve their technology and processes for responding to different types of emergencies.

As part of that effort, the EOC began working with Tennessee-based RAMSAFE Technologies. RAMSAFE developed a homeland security application featuring technology-based tools that promote collaboration between emergency managers, first responders, security managers and corporate executives. The technology is designed to help communities improve emergency preparedness, first response and operational recovery.

The county set up the EOC in the new facility using RAMSAFE's solution running on a Microsoft platform. The combination of new technologies means the county EOC can now automate procedural checklists, integrate resource management, organize contact information and documents, and use a bio-terrorism/multihazard predictive and decision support modeling tool. The new system also includes GIS, hundreds of live cameras, iPIX photos (three-dimensional, interactive photos that allow the user to control where you go and how close you get) and real-time data from 911 dispatches.

The EOC contains four large flat-screen monitors. Each screen can display a variety of things, from live television feeds and Internet sites to images from one of the 145 county-operated cameras. Thirty-six computers are arranged near the screens, with capacity for more than 100 laptops to hook up to the system if needed. From each terminal, county officials can tap into the county's traffic management system and view real-time images of intersections around the county, as well as a real-time queue of emergency calls coming into the 911 call center.

"The Montgomery County EOC has been transformed into a state-of-the-art facility," said Freeman. "We now have a huge archive of information available and new, technology-based ways to get that information and use it to help disaster specialists make better decisions. While actually handling the emergency is still up to the disaster specialists, we can now help make them more efficient and effective in a response."

The new tools also give the Montgomery County EOC accurate, up-to-date counts of the available resources to respond to an emergency.

"This is important in responding to a situation, but it also allows you to become proactive instead of reactive," said Himadri Banerjee, vice president of research and development for RAMSAFE Technologies. "You can see areas where you are lacking and build them up prior to an emergency occurring."

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 same business processes and philosophies was not easy. "We have union and nonunion folks, different work ethics, different work rules, etc. We really had to massage them to form a cohesive team," said Freeman.

Today, the new operations center is nearly complete. The EOC is finishing its transition between the old facility and the new one, and is currently about 80 percent done. Freeman said it will probably take another year or so to master all the new technology and complete technology training for all the county's disaster specialists.

But Freeman believes that the next time Montgomery County responds to an emergency, the technology he and his team have at their fingertips will allow them to respond in a faster, more efficient and more effective manner.

"This system is about providing knowledge," said Microsoft's Byrne. "Knowledge is a powerful tool, and it allows you to be much safer and more effective. Not only do you save lives, but you also save scarce government resources and wear and tear on the responders themselves because you are able to make better decisions."
Justine Brown Contributing Writer