Technology Supporting Emergency Response

By Kevin Coleman

Everyone is talking and writing about Hurricane Katrina and the disaster that has befallen the Gulf Coast.What is striking is that we saw the best and the worst of humanity during the challenging days after the hurricane and resulting failures of the levies.While this makes for great copy and a platform for political gain, I thought it would be more valuable to focus on the future.The actions of federal, state and local officials will be debated for months.In fact it would not be a surprise if there were dozens of lawsuits resulting from claims of negligence, willful neglect, racism and the gross incompetence that has added to the overall impact of this disaster.

Emergency Management
Emergency Management or Disaster Management is the effective and efficient organization and management of resources and responsibilities when dealing with all aspects of emergencies, disasters or terrorist attacks.Emergency management involves plans, structures and arrangements established to engage government, volunteer, businesses and nonprofits in a comprehensive and coordinated way to mitigate the implications of a disaster, terrorist attack or emergency.Emergency management is divided into three distinct phases.

Three Phases of Emergency Management
  1. Planning
  2. Response
  3. Recovery
Figure 1
(Click for larger image.)

While each phase is unique, they often overlap in their execution as is illustrated in Fig 1.
Our successes and failures when responding to disasters, terrorist attacks or other emergencies are decided in the planning and preparation phase of emergency management.If a failure occurs in the planning and preparation phase of the emergency, it is extremely difficult to overcome in the following phase or phases.However, failures can occur in multiple phases and often do.In Hurricane Katrina we saw failures in planning, preparation and response.The recovery phase is just now underway and hopefully, we will not repeat the lackluster performance in that phase.Now let's examine each phase, what went wrong and why.

Planning for disasters is complex; the written plan is the result of a significant amount of effort.Or at least it should be.While it appears that emergency plans existed and some simulation did occur, clearly there were deficiencies.Planning should have considered two things: 1) the possibility that a considerable amount of local resources would be unavailable; and 2) mutual aid from surrounding communities might not be available.

The seemingly fractured response to this and other emergencies is a symptom, not the root problem.The root problem was lack of command and control over the resources responding to the emergency.With a significant amount of local resources being rendered inoperable, the command and control structure had to be severely weakened.With the inability to receive back-up from surrounding communities to fill in critical needs, local emergency management resources were required to take on responsibility for multiple roles.This resulted in the local resources becoming overwhelmed.Couple that with the failure of the communication systems and coordination was next to impossible.Numerous federal agencies responded to this event.Integration and coordination of these agencies with the local efforts added stress to the management systems that were already beyond their capacity.

Now at the federal level the problems were much different.Even though federal organizations participated on occasion in emergency simulation exercises, a fully integrated operational plan was not in place.In addition, staging of resources, equipment and supplies for rapid deployment as soon as the storm had past was greatly lacking.Just as local authorities had command, control and coordination issues, so did FEMA.A unified command structure is required to coordinate across all the different organizations participating in the response.

The recovery phase is much longer in duration and has significantly different activities and operations than those in the response phase.A completely different set of skills are required in the recovery phase of an emergency or disaster.Recovery concentrates on executing activities that are required to get back to life as usual.Planning, contracting, coordinating, finance and logistics are the main components in the recovery management system.Given that we are early on in the recovery efforts, little information is available to assess the success or failure of these efforts.

In summary there are four major areas requiring improvement.They are a) leadership; b) command, control and coordination; c) communications; and d) resource management.If the United States is to effectively and efficiently respond to emergencies, disasters or terrorist attacks, changes must take place to address the problems.

Figure 2
(Click for larger image.)

This is not playing armchair quarterback.Responders have, in most cases, minutes if not seconds to make decisions - decisions that will be second guessed by thousands.Decisions whose final approval or condemnation will often be decided by a jury years from that moment.It is hard to conceive the pressure cooker they operate under.I am all too familiar with the enormous pressures that were placed on the local, state and federal officials who were a part of the emergency response effort.I had 15 years' experience in emergency response, and responded to multiple floods, storms and other emergencies.

Now let's examine what went right and why.While there was no shortage of heroes and individuals who went far beyond the call of duty or volunteerism, there were two organizations that stood out - the US Coast Guard and the US military.Few if any negative comments have been focused on these two entities.Why were they different? Why were the military and Coast Guard so effective and efficient in their response to the disaster? Actually there are two major reasons.

The first is C4I.C4I stands for Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence.This is the process that develops systems and procedural standards to provide a seamless vision of the defined operational space.The military and the Coast Guard both have significant communication infrastructures that are mobile and can be rapidly deployed in time of need.That plus they have access to technology (GIS, GPS telemetry, imagery, thermal mapping, 3D special maps, etc.) that provides real time data, including satellite imagery. This enables leaders, decision makers, staffers and operational individuals at all levels to attain cognitive awareness of the operational space, and understand their role.Basically this is the military version of the National Interagency Incident Management System (NIIMS) used in the emergency response community.

NIIMS was developed to provide a common system for agencies responding to emergencies, disasters and now terrorist attacks.It uses a unified command structure, common terminology, integrated communications and other operational concepts that combine to create a structured approach to incident management.The modular design allows this system to be used in small incidents to massive disasters.This is a very important point.If all emergency response organizations routinely use this system, they have become familiar with it and are able to efficiently function within the structure it provides.At a minimum, the simplified incident command system illustrated in Figure 3 should have been in use by all organization involved in Hurricane Katrina.

Figure 3
(Click for larger image.)

The ability to effectively manage and control the vast resources brought to bear in this disaster is directly related to management structure and practices.Too complex a structure leads to confusion.Too simple a structure leads to management overload.The military's use of C4I creates the management infrastructure needed to coordinate and control emergency response resources and activities. Their ability to mobilize and bring with them the computers, networks and communications necessary to complete their mission contributed to their ability to be so effective in this disaster.

The second reason is training.Both the military and the Coast Guard drill and drill and drill, making their actions second nature.They have standardized on equipment, tactics, methods, procedures and process that allow the interaction between teams to become all but seamless.When caught up in an emergency, your emotions and adrenaline can influence your ability to make decisions.

People do make the difference.The training program these organizations use instill confidence in the practitioners.The natural progression of individuals within the military and Coast Guard produce high quality leaders who have a deep appreciation for the boots on the ground who make it happen.Often individuals become overwhelmed with the magnitude of the event and the lack of complete and accurate information.The continuous training and standard operating procedures both minimize the likelihood of that happening.

So what is needed?
Two distinct capabilities need to be developed in order to ensure our ability to rapidly respond and address emergencies, disasters or terrorist attacks.While some organizations might say they have that capability, the fact of the matter is it really does not exist.Teams with two unique capabilities need to be developed, equipped and deployed across the US.These two teams could address many of the short-comings we have all witnessed in multiple events over the years. All of these teams could be alerted and dispatched based on critical need.

Disaster Response Teams (DRTs)
This group is responsible for the coordination, communications, command and control of all federal agencies responding to an event.This hybrid team of emergency, disaster and emergency event personnel would create the federal side of the interagency incident management team.At a minimum six such teams should be developed and positioned across the US.Making up this team of eight would be command and staff functions such as administration, planning, communications, operations, finance, logistics and command.The team commander would be the integration point for state and local authorities in times of need.While not actively engaged in an actual event, these teams would work with state and local authorities in the emergency plan development, training and simulation exercises.Complete communications and computer systems would be constructed for this specific purpose and strategically positioned as are the DRT teams across the US.

Rapid Intervention Teams (RITs)
Modeled after teams in the fire service, the RIT team is a multi-function team of 12 specialists.Each team would be comprised of four medical specialists, two security specialists, two fire rescue specialists, one safety specialist, one communications specialist, one support specialist and the team leader.Each team would be outfitted with an equipment pod containing all necessary supplies and equipment including integrated portable communications.This pod would travel with them to the area of need.Operating in a self-contained cell, these resources could be assigned to a geographic area to perform a wide variety of response activities.It is important to note that while two members are security specialists, every team member would be armed. At a minimum each state should have three to four teams.These on-call teams would respond within 24 hours of notification of an event.

The combination of these two capabilities will put the coordination, command and control capabilities that are critical to managing a disaster, emergency or terrorist attack in place within the critical envelope of emergency response.Equally important is the sizable RIT resource pool of specialists that are distributed throughout the country and the standard training and equipment that provides for total interoperability.Constructing these capabilities to supplement local and state resources will save lives.

We have no choice but to be prepared for emergencies, disasters or terrorist attacks.It is not a question of if one will happen, but when it will happen.Investment is required if the rapid response capabilities defined above are to be developed, equipped and maintained.While we can benefit from the use of technology in the emergency planning, response and recovery - the deciding factor is the quality of people who make up our response capabilities at the federal, state and local level.

Published Friday, September 16th, 2005

Written by Kevin Coleman

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