Cost-effective Information Interoperability for All-Hazards Events in Spite of Decreasing Preparedness Funding - Part Two, The Solution

By Ric Skinner

Ed. Note: This is a two-part article. In the first part, which appeared last week, the author described the environment that is putting pressure on disaster response resources, requiring them to "do more with less." This second part of the article offers a solution to the challenge.

In Part One of this article I described the environment of diminishing all-hazards preparedness funding that is strapping local communities to the point where the vast majority of local emergency management organizations will soon be unable to afford often pricey commercial incident management products and solutions. This creates a "necessity is the mother of invention" situation for communities. It becomes necessary for communities to be more creative with their limited funding resources in developing or enhancing planning and preparedness capabilities, including becoming more interoperable with neighboring communities, other agencies and critical response organizations.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has invested extensively in good, basic incident management software applications that are available at no cost. In order to qualify for DHS funding, a concept as outlined in this article will need to be designed and developed in accordance with Federal Interoperable Communications Grant Guidance (pdf) and DHS Homeland Security Grant Program – Supplemental Resource: Geospatial Guidance (pdf).

The "Disaster Management Interoperable Information System" (DMIIS) described here would 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, because 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 data and information (text and geospatial) 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, HazMat).

CAP-compliant systems that have developed an interface to DHS's freely provided Disaster Management Open Platform for Emergency Networks (DM-OPEN) CAP API can 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 to share information in a non-proprietary, 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, this same interoperable information systems design has been successfully demonstrated for moving incident response data and information between civilian and military (both unclassified and classified) domains.

One of the principal design criteria of DMIIS is cost-effectiveness. The interoperable platform for data and information communications will use DHS's Disaster Management Interoperability Services tools (DMIS) to extend incident management and information exchange capabilities to jurisdictions that do not have any other feasible solution. The no-cost software provides a good, basic capability that enables the emergency management community to securely share digital information (text, geospatial). By providing information sharing capabilities, tools and supporting infrastructures, DMIS installations help local and regional practitioners better prepare for, respond to and recover from emergencies, as well as in their 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, providing a cost-effective solution enabling communications between municipal departments, municipalities and other organizations, other municipalities and regions, and state Emergency Management Agencies, Public Health Departments, etc. DMIS plans for and manages incidents, and focuses on local needs and local control.

DMIS will soon have the capability to interface with NOAA HazCollect, providing an automated capability to streamline the creation, authentication, collection and dissemination of non-weather emergency messages in a quick and secure fashion. DMIS is also expected to incorporate the Resource Messaging (RM) and Hospital AVailability Exchange (HAVE) standards. These new standards, which are near completion, will provide DM-OPEN with even 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" (pdf) of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstration 2007. Also, Trial 3.27 won the top award (pdf) in its category from the International Association of Emergency Managers for Technology & Innovation.

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

Another no-cost solution that has emerged is "Sahana." Sahana is a free and Open Source disaster management system. Unlike DMIS, Sahana is a Web-based collaboration tool that addresses the common coordination problems during a disaster, including finding missing people, managing aid, managing volunteers, and tracking refugee camps effectively between government groups, the civil society (NGOs) and the victims themselves. Sahana is an integrated set of pluggable, Web-based disaster management applications that provide solutions to large-scale humanitarian problems in the aftermath of a disaster. Scale may be its major distinction from DMIS, which is perhaps better suited for managing incidents at the local/regional level. A review of Sahana, and a comparison of DMIS and Sahana, is planned for a future article.

Author's note: A previous draft of this article was reviewed by Sarah Hyder, Avagene Moore and Rick Hauschildt who provided helpful comments.

Published Monday, April 21st, 2008

Written by Ric Skinner

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