With the growth of the Internet has come several other supporting technologies:
- Web-enabled cellular phones and Internet access through the cable T.V. Cellular phones that contain either viewpieces (similar to video cameras) or screens are now available allowing individual interaction with remote computer systems and data.
- Wireless networks that allow any computer, without system administration changes, to be online by merely entering into range of the network and "smart rings" that store data and applications to allow volunteers and team members to put data into the computer by pressing it into the "ring port".
- British Telecom recently demonstrated a Pentium-based computer with screen, keyboard and radio (wireless) connection to the Internet that was not only lightweight' but also fit on the arm of the operator like a shirtsleeve!
Given the linkages to Global Positioning Systems and Geographic Information Systems, the real-time information and capability of the Emergency Management / Disaster Recovery field will continue to grow. It has been said that the winning of the Gulf War was not so much based on superior weapons and training but the real-time information flow and its utilization.
Many of our Emergency Management / Disaster Response systems still rely on 1980's technology and concepts, where the technology focus was defined by heavy database systems with limited data communications, lots of training, and when deployed-lots of paper.
Many existing plans and systems are typically paper driven. There is usually a static list of tasks that form the response plan and a large database of resources, contact names, etc. that have been entered into an emergency response software system. The traditional paper-based approach is to type out check-lists and hand them out to each team member who fill them in and sooner or later upon arrival at the Command Post they are correlated to gain an understanding of the situation. Usually in conjunction with this, by phone or radio, command post personnel frequently check with each team as to their status and if necessary perform coordination activities with other teams. Updates although real-time, tended to be random and perhaps misinterpreted or inaccurately recorded. In some organizations, Emergency Management software allows the checklists to be entered into a computer and perhaps even assists in deriving tasks. However, in many cases the lists are still printed, copied and handed-out.
This is not a satisfactory way to manage an Emergency Operations Center as:
- key personnel resources are tied to data fusion activities (information correlation); and,
- feedback is not real-time and therefore does not support timely and responsive management decisions. We have seen examples, of crucial data that got lost in the mountain of incoming data - data that if acted on immediately could have made a difference. Or the old shell game of "what are the resources, whose has got what resource and is it busy?" is a common problem.
Computers assisting in real-time management activities is a relatively new trend in the Emergency Management / Disaster Recovery field, largely perhaps due to the absence of enabling technologies. It is not new in other fields. We need to understand how technology can assist in data fusion, real-time status awareness, and interoperability.
In most organizations the response checklist is still one-dimensional. Classically, this has been the case as the enabling technologies to provide real-time Command and Control have not been available. As shown in diagram 1' an event occurs and the responder completes an Action. Coupled then with a possible Event 2 the responder completes the next action on the checklist.
Events and Actions do not really occur in this way, as ultimately our future Actions although in response to a new Event (Event 2) are influenced by the Effects of previous Actions and Events.
We assume this model since it lends it self to paper-based checklists. Such check-lists sometimes contain high level generic actions such as: "Inform Incident Commander of Situation".
In reality, as shown in diagram 2, we can take advantage of decision points and using real-time information we can assume a course of action which may be different than the initially planned action, with hopefully better results.
Such computer-based systems are generally referred to as real-time Decision Support Systems (DSS) or Command and Control (C&C).
The military have spent a great deal of research on real-time Command and Control. After the Gulf War several lessons were learned, the key being the need for interoperability - the need to coordinate multiple organizations, independent of nationality, communications and computing infrastructure. New approaches are currently being implemented into next generation systems.
diagram 2: Realtime Decision
The key lessons to be learned are as follows:
- For years, project planning methodologies such GATT and PERT charts have been used to structure a response plan that logically represents each activity, its successors and predecessors and resource requirements including contingency options. These plans can have superimposed information links for management decision making. For example, the command post personnel might need to know of the success of a particular activity in order to determine if a particular contingency plan needs to be considered. Next, each activity is allocated to the appropriate team and controller of the resource.
- Each unit must have the capability to not only complete their tasks but automatically have the system keep key personnel informed as to the progression of the plan, either for information or activity sequencing purposes.
- The command post personnel must have sufficient understanding of the team's activities to make decisions and take action when problems occur and to reallocate resources as the situation unfolds.
- The capability, in real-time, to revise / create activities and know that the affected teams and resource controllers will be notified, is key.
The technology now exists to implement a decision driven model with modern Information Technology assisting the coordination management activities. Indeed, we can expect to see relevant concepts from military Command and Control, project management, planning and computerized Decision Support Systems (DSS) make their way into the Emergency Management / Disaster Recovery field over the next few years.
Given these lessons what would an ideal system look like? We would expect the following:
- it should be platform independent, in other words, to allow any type of computer (Macintosh, UNIX, Windows 95/98/NT) to be part of the system;
- it should operate across the internet or intranet and be accessible anywhere the internet reaches, in what ever form, for example web based cell phones or internet TV channels;
- it should be real time;
- its transmitted data should be encrypted;
- it should provide activity status information;
- it should allow messages and logs to be kept;
- it should allow command post personnel to concentrate on management as opposed to clerical activities;
- and, it should require minimal training.
What should we be doing given limited budgets and several existing and evolving technology choices? There are several action items:
- Continue to upgrade the Emergency Management / Disaster Recovery unit's Information Technology infrastructure as part of the organizational infrastructure upgrades. Even if the benefit may not be readily apparent, we need to keep the infrastructure as flexible as possible. Particularly focus on network upgrades.
- Identify the bottlenecks and problem issues in your organization that impedes efficient and effective operations and set aside time to try new products and services. Use free trial versions if you want. The aim is twofold a) determine if the product suitable for your organization and b) more importantly, allow the product/service to spur thinking in terms of reworking the current approaches to meeting functional requirements.
- Look for technologies that are growing and applicable outside the Emergency Management area. Hardware considerations may include cellular or satellite communications. Software alternatives include Java for example, which is a powerful new language fully utilizing the Internet. Applications that utilize it will grow in capability as the underlying technology grows.
- Look for ideas outside the Emergency Management / Disaster Recovery field. Project management, event planning, real-time military Command and Control, Decision Support Systems, are well established fields and are ripe for the cross-fertilization of ideas. After all, Incident Command System concepts came from the military. New generation military Command and Control systems use phrases such as "Shared Situational Awarness", "Real-Time Forces Synchronization", "Interoperability", and "Greater Operating Tempo". Such phrases are applicable in Emergency Management / Disaster Recovery and their underlying technologies need to be carefully examined and potentially embraced.
- Look for products and services that are aimed at real-time decision support or situation management. These will assist in speeding up the capability to receive situational data, analyze it and present it to those that need to make decisions;
- With fixed budgets, plan for phased acquisitions and look for products that allow incremental purchases.
James E. Bowen is President of Coordtek Inc., a division of CompEngServ Ltd., which provides computer services and products. Their website is www.sitrep2200.com. Contact him at email@example.com.
Richard K. Doull is in charge of Business Development at Coordtek Inc. He can be reached for comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.