System braces city for disasters

System braces city for disasters

Los Angeles emergency management agencies will use Web browser app to share information

By Claire E. House
GCN Staff

The E Team emergency management program will let emergency responders in Los Angeles place icons on digital maps to signify events such as building damage, fires, earthquakes and terrorist acts. Users will click on an icon to reference data and group messages about each event.

It's nice to fool with the World Wide Web.

Emergency management agencies are increasingly countering Mother Nature with the Web to prepare for disasters, coordinate response and inform the public.

North Carolina's Web team helped coastal communities prepare for Hurricane Floyd in September by quickly building a public site to share hurricane-related information from various sources (see story, below).

Los Angeles plans to do more than just cross its fingers with the help of E Team, a georeferenced workflow system from of Canoga Park, Calif.

Area agencies will access the workflow system through Web browsers to coordinate activity after an earthquake or other catastrophe.

The city expects E Team to help it manage disasters better than it could just five years ago, when the Northridge earthquake hit. Back then, the Emergency Operations Center had perhaps three or four basic computers, Emergency Preparedness Division director Ellis Stanley said.

'The city kind of managed in the military way'it put up a bunch of block paper and pulled out grease pencils and tried to come up with strategies,' he said.

Afterward, Mayor Richard J. Riordan pulled together $1 million to furnish the EOC with 75 networked computers. Stanley joined the city two years ago and began a partnership with president and chief executive officer Matt Walton.

The two shared a vision of a technological tool that the community could use without being hardwired, Stanley said.

Now, 30 Los Angeles departments access an E Team beta through the city intranet. The city will expand access to other area governments, nonprofit organizations and businesses via the Web.

The application runs on top of Lotus Domino 4.62 under Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 on a dual 500-MHz Pentium III Compaq 3000 with 1G of RAM and four 18.2G hard drives.

The system has yet to face disaster. Los Angeles ran it through an earthquake drill in January. Users complained that it was 'too fancy,' Stanley said, and worked hand in hand with them to improve it.

The second iteration worked well for a year 2000 disaster drill in May that simulated more than 40 simultaneous events, including a dam breach, an airplane crash, a sewage treatment overflow, a release of quarantined animals and a refinery fire.

'Hundreds of people were modifying the same forms within the database,' Walton said.

Lotus Notes messaging let users communicate simultaneously about situation status, resource management, damage assessment, cost tracking and departmental status.

At one point, the system transmitted 1,800 messages in an hour. Every user could see every message, so there was no redundancy, Stanley said.

If a request went out to several entities for a bulldozer, potential responders could see if another organization already responded. Each user could also prioritize and color-code the messages.

E Team also references mapping software to plot events graphically. So police officers responding to a riot at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, for example, could pull up a map of the area and post a riot icon at that location. Users would drill down through the icon to get background data.

Users can generate reports for themselves and send them electronically to decision-makers, shielding higher-ups from the minutiae of each situation, Stanley said.

'It gives us an operational tool that anybody can use,' Stanley said.

Both Los Angeles and California year 2000 teams plan to track and respond to any rollover events through the E Team beta. The city is negotiating with for the final product, said Joyce Edson, senior systems analyst at the city's Information Technology Agency.

Los Angeles intends to expand E Team's use. The city would ultimately like to connect users wirelessly via cellular bandwidth and add a cost-tallying tool, Stanley said.

It plans to use data from its geographic information system so disaster events can be matched up with GIS layers detailing the locations of things such as sewer lines, gas lines and fire hydrants. It also plans to tap other city data such as digital images of building plan layouts.

Both Walton and Stanley predicted that personal digital assistants would replace notebook PCs in the field. Walton also envisions expanded use of voice, photo and video file transmissions through the devices during emergency responses.

Behind all the technology, it's the information that counts, Stanley said. After Northridge, officials didn't expect much damage in Santa Monica because it was far from the quake's epicenter. Emergency responders neglected the area initially and eventually found much damage, he said.

'With these tools, we would know where our most vulnerable areas are almost instantly,' Stanley said.

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