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

By Ric Skinner

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

All disasters are local and initial response requires local resources. Therefore, local information and data, and locally managed interoperable information systems are critical assets for disaster planning, preparedness, response and recovery. Part One of this article discusses the emerging environment of diminishing federal and state funding for local preparedness and how it affects one aspect of preparedness and response: interoperable communication. Part Two will describe a way for funding-strapped communities to become better prepared for "all-hazards" events by implementing a cost-effective information interoperability solution.

The Funding Environment
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funding to states and communities, which is used to prepare for a terrorist attack or major disaster, has remained steady or declined over the past four years, and it appears the trend will continue in FY 2008. Based on the president's FY 2009 requests, overall funding for the State Homeland Security Grant Program could be 79% less than for FY 2008 (Sen. Lieberman 2008).

The doctrine of the National Response Framework (NRF 2008
(pdf)) calls for common organizational structures and capabilities that are scalable, flexible and adaptable for diverse operations and which facilitate interoperability and improve operational coordination. State Homeland Security strategy plans, motivated in part by decreasing funding resources, are increasingly stressing the need to shift focus away from purchasing equipment and supplies, and toward planning and preparedness.

The NRF recognizes:
For an effective response, expertise and experience must be leveraged to support decision making and to summarize and prioritize information rapidly. Information must be gathered accurately at the scene and effectively communicated to those who need it. To be successful, clear lines of information flow and a common operating picture are essential (emphasis added; NRF 2008).
The National Governors Association identified interoperable communications as the top priority (pdf) for FY 2007. Interoperability typically is interpreted as - and grant funding is typically spent on - voice communications such as radios and related equipment. However, in fiscal year (FY) 2007, the Department of Homeland Security placed greater emphasis on data, including geospatial data, and information interoperability, including the tools to move data between municipal departments, communities, other agencies and other entities such as hospitals, blood banks, and human and animal shelters.

Due to the reductions in preparedness funding, the vast majority of local emergency management organizations will soon be unable to afford the often pricey commercial incident management products and solutions. Therefore, it behooves communities to use their limited funding resources to be more creative in developing or enhancing planning and preparedness capabilities, including becoming more interoperable with neighboring communities. Many communities still face obstacles in developing interoperable voice communications (i.e. radio) between their own police, fire, EMS and public works departments. Even greater obstacles exist for data and information interoperability between communities, regions and state agencies.

Most data needed in a disaster or other emergency are geospatial. In providing for homeland security, location is of paramount importance. The first questions typically asked are: "Where is it? What's in the area I need to know about? How do I get there?" The central conclusion of the National Academy of Sciences report, "Successful Response Starts with a Map -- Improving Geospatial Support for Disaster Management," is that geospatial data and tools should be an essential part of all aspects of emergency management - from planning for future events, through response and recovery, to the mitigation of future events (NAS 2007).

DHS recognizes the important contribution that geospatial information and geospatial technology play in emergency management and disaster response. Federal, state and local organizations have increasingly incorporated geospatial information and technologies as tools for use in emergency management and homeland security applications. Geospatial systems improve the overall capability of information technology applications and systems to enhance public security and emergency preparedness and efficient response to all-hazards, including both natural and man-made disasters.

State Homeland Security strategies often include objectives that recommend enhancement of GIS capabilities in support of the all-hazards approach to homeland security. GIS, as part of the incident management tool set, allows emergency managers to quickly and accurately visualize patterns of activity, map locations, model potential hazards, and put emergency situations into a geospatial context. Communities across the U.S. have or are building GIS capability resulting in essential geospatial data resources.

The concept that will be further discussed in Part Two of this article is interoperability. Interoperability is about the ability of two or more systems (and the people and functions they support) to share data and tools effectively and seamlessly, independent of location, data models, technology platform, terminologies, etc. Interoperable communications (voice, data) are essential elements of planning, preparedness, response and recovery so that all those who need the information receive it, at the right time and in the right format. For example, here in Massachusetts, in establishing the Massachusetts State Interoperability Executive Committee, Governor Deval Patrick recognized the need to:
"... enable emergency response agencies and other stakeholders to exchange critical communications and data with one another, permitting them to work together effectively and efficiently to prevent, respond to, and recover from domestic incidents, regardless of cause, size or complexity." (Executive Order 493)
The lack of consistent policy for collaboration, together with protocols and structures for coordination and communication, has long been a challenge to effective collaboration, sharing and reuse of geospatial data and tools among all levels of government. A critical requirement for emergency preparedness, response and mitigation is to have rapid access to the most accurate, up-to-date geospatial content, whether it is current wind speed and direction, the location of hospitals, damage assessment data, or the results of predictive flood models.

In addition to knowledge of where the event has occurred, essential data would include other critical information about the area it has impacted, the nature of impact, and the locations of key assets such as shelters, disaster equipment and potential responders. Without this information, and the tools necessary to share and collaborate on what it means in order to effect appropriate decisions, the eventual detrimental impacts of the event will likely be greater than necessary, whether measured in loss of life, injury, damage to property or disruption of essential activities.

Part Two of this article in a subsequent issue of Directions Magazine will discuss a proposed cost-effective information interoperability solution.

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

Published Friday, April 18th, 2008

Written by Ric Skinner

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