Software tools give public safety agencies a common view during emergencies

When a tornado struck in Kentucky two years ago, the Kentucky Department of Public Health's Preparedness Branch moved its crisis incident management software from test mode into production.


In this report:

Interoperable radios, satellite systems bring agencies closer to unified communications


The storm struck in February, a rare time for a tornado, and killed seven people.

The Preparedness Branch let the state’s emergency operations center use WebEOC, which provides access to real-time information for a common operating picture during an event or daily operations. “It makes sense for us,” said Drew Chandler, IT director and communications manager at Kentucky's Preparedness Branch. "If they are using what we are using, then we are in the loop all the time."

The state’s emergency operations manager decided that EOC staff members needed training at 10 p.m. on the night of the storm. By midnight, everyone could access WebEOC. Even Chandler’s backup person, who was scheduled to relieve him in the morning, was able to log in and view information from his La-Z-Boy armchair at home “as if he was sitting in the room with us,” he said.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Justice Department, conducted a survey on crisis incident management software and found only a handful of systems.

WebEOC, developed by ESi, was one of them. WebEOC's architecture uses Microsoft SQL Server as a database and Microsoft Internet Information Server as a Web server. Clients use Microsoft Internet Explorer. The software can be customized to meet the requirements of a jurisdiction, and any number of authorized users can log in to a jurisdiction's WebEOC platform.

WebEOC Mapper provides visualization technology, giving users the ability to view status board data in the context of other map data to achieve a common operating picture.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is using the tool to connect headquarters with regional emergency operations centers to get a common view of events, said Omar Khan, an IT specialist at NRC.

NRC deployed the software last year but just began installing ESi Web Fusion, which acts as a central communications hub to route messages between WebEOC servers and third-party systems. “With Web Fusion we can share information with sites without [having to] open up our network,” Khan said.

AT&T’s Network Discovery Recovery team, which recovers AT&T voice and data service network elements to an area affected by a disaster, uses WebEOC with its incident command solution to link with emergency management agencies throughout counties’ AT&T services, said Mark Francis, the company’s vice president of global network operations.

During a crisis, AT&T can see how the counties’ EOCs are handling the situation and vice versa — the EOCs can see what AT&T is doing to restore communications, he said.

“During a disaster, communications is key; losing that ability [means] there’s chaos,” he said.

To improve collaboration, Microsoft has teamed up with E*Sponder, whose software is built on Microsoft SharePoint, said Colin Nurse, chief technology officer at Microsoft’s state and local government unit. E*Sponder lets users store templates so their operations can improve every time they handle an event, whether planed or unplanned.

The E*Sponder alerts module lets agencies contact thousands of people simultaneously via pager, phone, e-mail or text message.

E*Sponder was used in Tampa, Fla., earlier this year for Super Bowl activities. The software connected on-site and remote authorities so they could remotely track all activities in real time, using maps, 3-D displays, two-way radio integration and immediate communication.

The jewel in the crown of E*Sponder is Microsoft Surface, Nurse said. The Surface device displayed a Virtual Earth map of the entire region, tracking events, incidents, resources and tasks in real time using its large display, multiuser, multitouch and interactive capabilities. Surface, designed like a tabletop, lets personnel use quick hand gestures to zoom in and display a 3-D image of Tampa, including detailed views of buildings and streets and real-time resource tracking.

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