Incident Command Tools: Beyond the Whiteboard

A new generation of computer tools promise to put more information in the hands of incident commanders, but they still have limitations.

by Alan S. Brown

The fire had already spread from the factory to a warehouse that contains hazardous chemicals when the first patrol car arrives at 2 a.m. The officer's initial assessment sets several automated systems in motion.

A combined police-fire computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system calls out fire, police, and EMS, and rouses on-call hazmat team members from their sleep. Another set of calls goes to towns with mutual aid agreements. Meanwhile, an air dispersion model using the latest weather forecasts predicts where the flume is headed. An automated system warns residents living in its path to evacuate.

The incident commander begins to plan the operation, pulling up floor plans from a laptop resting on the hood of his car. He also uses the laptop to review checklists for handling potential chemical hazards, while downtown staff track down the warehouse's owners, employees, and suppliers to find out what is actually inside the building.

As responders reach the scene, they are scanned and their training, certification, and equipment quickly appear on the command laptop. The incident commander uses the information to assign and track unfamiliar responders from other municipalities. When a collapse traps two responders, a wireless transmitter immediately signals their location. The command team checks their air supply and quick mounts a rescue.

The fire is brought under control shortly after dawn. A software database of who responded when and their assignments will simplify preparation of a report. It will also enable the town to accurately assess any charges for the response.

Okay. This incident is not likely to play out anywhere near you, at least not today. Yet even knowledgeable responders may be surprised at how many pieces of this imaginary electronic incident command toolkit are already on the market.

Granted, most sophisticated incident management tools are confined to a handful of big-city departments. Few seamlessly share information with one another. Team leaders are not always able to access critical information when they need it.

But software developers are moving rapidly to overcome these hurdles. Driven by homeland security concerns, the need to manage increasingly common mutual aid agreements, and a computer-savvy generation of responders, they are creating new ways to put more information in the hands of incident commanders.

CIMS

Actually, many large and medium-sized departments have already built their emergency management operation centers around crisis information management software, or CIMS. CIMS helps ops centers manage crisis information and public safety agency response.

At their heart, CIMS help automate the mechanics of crisis management, recording and reporting what happens during an event. Most CIMS programs also support pre-event planning, operations, execution, resource management, and organizational communications. Most provide mapping capabilities as well, enabling consoles in patrol cars and fire trucks to find the right address on unfamiliar roads.

Incident Master from Essential Information Systems Inc. (EIS, Rockville, Md.) and Ramsafe from Ramsafe LLC (Marietta, Ga.) are two of 10 CIMS systems reviewed by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) last year.

"There's no question that technology has become an integral component of all emergency response over the past 20 years," says EIS crisis management product manager John Gargett. "From CAD and real time mapping in vehicles to systems that let commanders and elected officials log on at home and get an idea of a situation's needs and requirements, computerized systems are finding greater acceptance."

Incident Master is a Web-based application that delivers a broad range of crisis management information. It helps manage messages and tasks, track assets and personnel, and standard operating procedures (SOPs). It provides lots of support, including several mapping options, air modeling, and special needs analysis.

Preplanning

Not surprisingly, it works best when users spend time preplanning for emergencies. That includes filling the software's database with building floor plans, aerial imagery, chemical inventories and precautions, backup staging areas, and emergency contacts and resources. After all, 2 a.m. is not a good time to determine just which chemicals, exactly, are in a building.

Because such records are computerized in a standard format, they are much easier to update regularly. "Over the last 20 years, we have seen technology save emergency responders 30-60 percent of their planning time," says Gargett. "They only need to record information once, then update it regularly." The payoff is that floor plans, inventories, and contacts are instantly available in a crisis.

Ramsafe President John Gordon underscores the need for systems that let multiple agencies communicate with one another. "The Dept. of Homeland Security has called for a paradigm shift on incident management," he explains.

"Organizations have to learn how to share information resources more quickly and access information they need to support good decision-making at the command center and on the scene by incident commanders."

Gordon knows because, like many other responder software developers, he's been there. As commander of the Atlanta Police Dept. Olympic Office, he was point man for 1996 Summer Olympics planning and oversaw the interagency subcommittees that developed the master security plan.

Olympics

"No organization believed it could handle the entire event by itself," he relates. "When you get into developing plans that require so many local, state, and federal agencies that might not ordinarily work together to share critical resources, you appreciate challenges in homeland security."

Ramsafe was developed to facilitate that type of sharing. Gordon says the concept was validated in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games, where the system captured the entire critical infrastructure, from the airport through 400 individual floor plans. Everything was linked to maps, satellite imagery (map photos to help with building identification), and interior photos that viewers can navigate 360 degrees.

The system proved very useful in responding to hundreds of bogus bomb threats. "An explosive ordnance disposal squad responds to a call, but maybe it's never been to that venue or even inside the state before. From a laptop, they can see the latest imagery and map of the area and navigate floor plans embedded with photos so they don't go in blind.

"Meanwhile, the command center has access to all location data, emergency procedure checklists, and critical source documents. They can deploy resources based on preexisting plans," says Gordon. In the event of mass casualties, Ramsafe could automatically poll hospital emergency rooms and reserve beds.

Limits

CIMS are powerful management tools, but they have limitations. They tend to be expensive. Gordon, for example, notes that a small jurisdiction could have Ramsafe up and running for under $10,000. A networked system for larger municipalities could cost $50,000. Moreover, CIMS require dedicated personnel. Someone has to work the operations center while someone else logs incident information.

According to NIJ, another key limitation is that CIMS systems from different vendors cannot share or exchange information among one another. Software used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for example, may not work with systems used by state, local or even other federal agencies. NIJ recommends that responders establish standards and insist that vendors comply with them.

Computerized alert notification systems have also proven themselves indispensable in emergencies. While many CIMS support notification, some stand-alone products provide a surprising range of sophisticated capabilities.

Notification

One of them is the Communicator from Dialogic Communications Corp. (DCC, Franklin, Tenn.). Originally developed for the nuclear industry, it automatically contacts persons by phone, pager, fax and e-mail, confirms receipt of messages, and details call-out results.

DCC claims it automates any notification procedure, no matter how complex. It can call out responders based on the type of incident or activate banks of remote telephones to deliver evacuation phone calls to thousands of homes. Moreover, responders can activate even complex tasks from the incident scene.

Like CIMS users, those who plan ahead are best prepared in an emergency. This begins with creating a roster. It includes shift, training, position, and preferred and backup contact information.

Rosters are configured into groups, such as Hazmat, SWAT, command, and search and rescue. A ladder company, for example, might consist of people who ride certain positions or have specific skills.

Finally, organizations create scenarios. Which groups are called out for a three-alarm fire? A sniper? A major flood? An overturned railcar? A dozen overturned railcars? Communicator handles hundreds or even thousands of different scenarios.

In an emergency, the commander or dispatcher activates a notification scenario. Communicator starts notifying crews already on shift. If the scenario calls for more crews, it notifies responders on standby. If it cannot reach them on the primary phone, it will try backup cell phones, pagers, and e-mails. Those messages can be as detailed as needed.

As responders answer, they punch in a security code to acknowledge that they are fit for duty and can respond within a given time limit. If it cannot fill all the slots or needs faster response, Communicator will call other group members based on skills and training. It may contact nearby towns with mutual aid agreements.

If the event escalates, incident commanders can switch scenarios to call for more help. They can also link the system to remote banks of telephones to call residents and warn them of danger. After an incident, it acts as a community bulletin board, providing information on where to go or find information about loved ones.

While notification systems are extremely powerful emergency tools, they have found many other daily uses. These range from Amber Alerts and searching for lost children and Alzheimer walkaways to calling residents of an area in search of crime clues. Many departments use them to audit drills because they provide detailed information on who responded when.

Tracking

Several pocket-based Palm or Pocket PC tools enable incident command teams to track personnel and equipment on the scene itself. One such program is the Personnel Accountability Recorder (PAR) from Incident Command Technologies Inc. of Chesterfield, Mich.

Company president John C. Ellis, a suburban firefighter for 22 years, developed the software to simplify asset tracking on a fire scene. "It's hard to track assignments with pen and paper on the scene," he says. "When I went looking for software that could do it on my Pocket PC, there was nothing there."

PAR fills that need. It time-stamps and tracks each responder's assignments during an incident and prints a report afterwards. The software runs on a ruggedized, weatherproof Compaq iPaq pocket PC using touchscreens and drop-down menus, eliminating writing or mouse clicks. Of course, the software only works if someone has added responder names and groups before use.

For most callouts, PAR and CIMS software works fine. What happens, though, when an incident escalates into a major event that requires mutual aid, outside volunteers, and regional, state, and federal assistance?

The problem, explains Russ Miller, cofounder of Salamander Technologies Inc. of Traverse City, Mich., is that most responder software works from the top down. It requires responders to store information in a central database before they can use it. When an earthquake, hurricane, or other disaster brings in thousands of responders from other jurisdictions, those systems are less effective.

Fire-Trax, Miller's personnel and equipment tracking solution, is based on conventional fire service ID tags, collection rings, and boards used to manage assignments. But Fire-Trax goes one step further. It enables organizations to encode personal and qualification information on ID tags using a PDF417 barcode that contains 100 times more information than the standard barcodes commonly found on retail products.

Scanning the barcodes tells incident commanders who is at the site and what qualifications they have. Palm-based tracking software lets them assign and reassign responders and search the roster by qualification. A timer reminds them when to call roll. Networking the palm units creates an electric whiteboard that tells commanders what people and equipment are associated with what locations at the site.

The system works best, says Miller, when different agencies in a single region standardize on it. That way, every responder and piece of equipment shows up at an event with a properly coded tag. But he notes that 38 states have or will encode drivers license information in PDF417 format. Fire-Trax users at a fast-moving scene can simply scan in a driver's license and add qualification information to create tags and a database.

The next step, Miller continues, is to use this information to truly manage the response at the incident scene itself. Instead of simple tracking, the software will automatically manage prompts and timers at a scene. He expects to soon launch a new software product that will do just that. He will have plenty of competition from existing laptop- based products.

Incident Management

When it comes to incident management software, Fit-Notes founder Jay Carnegie knows what he's talking about. As a fire battalion chief in Seattle, he experienced the difficulties of managing even moderately sized incidents. While commanders might log the time of the first company or two, it is easy to skip steps and make mistakes as events begin to accelerate.

Mark Bouchard, president of FieldSoft Inc. and an ex-battalion chief from Chandler, Ariz., agrees. "There are always lost notes, erased boards, and garbled messages," he says. "You radio a unit to move from one area to another and they acknowledge but never get there. Meanwhile, you've rewritten their position on the marker board. If they're a mutual aid unit, you're not familiar with them and now you don't know where they are.

"If you're using a tactical worksheet or marker board, this is faster, simpler, and easier to use," says Bouchard about his software, FDonScene and PDonScene. "When you use one of these products, you're better able to focus on strategy, tactics, and hazards since the software handles the mechanical aspects of incident command."

Carnegie makes essentially the same claims. Rather than just record assignments like CIMS, incident management software enables commanders on the scene to assign and reassign crews, then track them using timers, prompts, and benchmarks. Both programs are fast and robust, but they operate very differently from one another.

Carnegie's Fit-Notes software visually replicates how incident commanders view a scene. Its main screen shows building outlines, exposures, and floors as well as crew locations. Users log in crews, assign them in and around the building, then reassign them without "losing" people in the confusion.

Fit-Notes color codes show the length of time a crew spends on an assignment, giving a quick read on who needs replacement. A timer automatically prompts a roll call at preset intervals. A collapse timer reminds the commander to reevaluate building integrity.

"If I'm tracking the scene and there are three units missing, I can tell you who is there, where they were working, and how much air they have left because I assigned them and clocked them in," says Carnegie. "That way, I know what kind of rescue effort we have to mount."

Bouchard's software is less visual. Instead, it uses drop-down menus based on run cards. Preparation is once again the key. Users develop a list of incidents they are likely to respond to, from fires and festivals to hostages or spills. They create run cards with objectives, tasks, sectors, groups, and benchmarks.

When they arrive at the scene, the commander picks the appropriate run card. It acts like a cheat sheet for strategy, tactics, and callout. Like Fit-Notes, Bouchard's software also provides prompts and timers to manage the mechanical aspects of command.

"In most situations," says Bouchard, "first responders know what to do. In an atypical situation, though they may have to think about it. Instead of guessing, they need to know who is available, what equipment is on scene, their obstacles, and progress so they can focus on the important stuff. This helps them act, not react."

Integration

Bouchard has pursued partnerships with other software vendors to automate information delivery. In Orlando, for example, FieldSoft connects with the city's new Printrak (a Motorola Co.) CAD system and Aether Systems Inc. FireRMS records management software (RMS). When the alarm is sounded, they forward the incident number, incident type, units assigned, and roster to FDonScene. That way, the commander starts off knowing the available resources.

The software is also bundled with Motorola's Fireground Communication System and Raytheon Co.'s First Responder communication and command vehicle. It also links to Grace Industries Inc.'s T-PASS personal alert safety system. Conventional systems emit a loud blast when a responder is down. Grace's T-PASS system goes one step further and uses a radio transmitter to send the information. Its latest model also receives radio evacuation notices. FDonScene can both receive and send T-PASS notices.

Integration of different types of software will become increasingly important in the future. Orlando's system automates many routine tasks and really does give incident commanders more time to focus on strategy.

Many CIMS and CAD packages are already highly integrated. But, as in the case of the Olympics, this requires lots of preparation and a commitment by everyone to standardize on the same products. Unfortunately, such integration extends no further than the boundary of a single department.

What happens in larger incidents where responders rush together from surrounding communities? Those systems do not mesh. Those at the scene enter only some rosters and assets. They track only some crews. They deliver the right SOPs and checklists to only some responders.

The largest incidents – those that could really benefit from CIMS, notification, asset tracking, and incident management software to manage a fast-moving event – are those where today's systems are least likely to meet responder needs.

In the past, departments often distrusted computers. This is no longer the case. Many of today's leaders grew up with computerization at work and at home. They expect their software to work together. That is why they will demand more integrated systems in the future. This has already begun to happen, and the results may one day have as radical an impact on incident response as the radio.

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