National system to help firefighters quickly locate nearby resources

The National Mutual Aid System combines crisis management software with geocoded data to help fire officials find additional resources -- whether that be personnel, teams, facilities, equipment or supplies -- from across the country.

In a letter to California Gov. Jerry Brown, five fire emergency response managers said that they could have better fought the fires and floods that ravaged the state last year and cost $18 billion if they had a better way to track emergency resources during multi-jurisdictional events.  An application in the works will provide just that.

The cloud-based National Mutual Aid System (NMAS) modernizes the 10-year-old Mutual Aid System created by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). It merges data and mapping by marrying Intermedix’s WebEOC crisis management software with Esri's ArcGIS platform to help fire officials quickly search for and find additional resources -- whether that be personnel, teams, facilities, equipment or supplies -- from across the country.

“We’re bringing mutual aid to the 21st century,” said Jeff Dulin, IAFC’s strategic adviser. “The WebEOC part of it is the data, and the Esri part of it is the mapping,"

Previously fire officials would have lists of assets, but they wouldn’t know where those resources were located. "Now you’ll see that visually on a map, so you can see how close they are, how far away, how long it will take them to get there,” Dulin said.

To use NMAS, fire agencies register with IAFC, which grants them access to the tool. They enter their inventory into the system manually or through WebEOC’s batch import process for Microsoft Excel. The data format is based on the National Incident Management System, which standardizes equipment types nationwide, giving stakeholders common definitions and processes for their mutual aid planning, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This means that a fire official can query NMAS for Type I engine, and every fire service in the country knows what that means.

Once the resources are entered, the Esri component automatically geocodes them. When officials query the system for resources, they get both a map showing locations and a list ranked nearest to farthest. Users can query by distance, time to delivery, category and resource. Additionally, they can plot the best route for resource loaners to use. Individual fire agencies can manage their inventories.

“We’re using accepted nomenclatures, protocols, classifications from existing systems that have been put in place by FEMA, Homeland Security, the Forest Service,” said Cy Cole, director of federal business development at Intermedix. Additionally, 44 state emergency management agencies and FEMA already use WebEOC.

For California’s recent natural disasters, responders relied on an older system with few GIS components. In their letter, the fire managers asked for “revenue to modernize the effective, but aging, Mutual Aid System to include rapid resource processing and ordering, incident logistical support, and command and control functions at local public safety communications centers.”

“What would have been different [with NMAS] was they would have been able to visualize the resources that were available, and they could see where they were,” Dulin said. That would have helped them “speed up the whole process of making a request both to a resource owner and then getting a resource deployed to that event.”

Cole said resource requests and fulfillments can take up to two days -- too long when wildfires are involved.

Although the idea of mutual aid isn’t new, it has been difficult for fire departments, said Ryan Lanclos, director of public-safety industries at Esri. “There’s never been a national system … for fire service[s] to share and access mutual aid information,” he said.

“In 2017, the amount of disasters that we faced in the U.S. and the cost of those disasters reflect how complex, how costly they were not just monetarily, but for our environment, infrastructure and the people that were impact directly," Lanclos explained. "Those hurricane examples, flooding examples are just perfect use cases" that show how the National Mutual Aid System can help first responders get access to resources they need, he said.

Cole said the ultimate goal is greater efficiency. “Let’s be really clear: All NMAS is, is really just a system to help make it easier for all the fire agencies to do what they’ve been doing for years,” he said. “We’re going to help them expand the scope and the reach of mutual aid in the country.”

Another benefit of the system will be data analytics, he added. Making and fulfilling requests generates data that can be used to facilitate the reimbursement process, for example. “You don’t expect the fire department to send those million-dollar trucks and all those firefighters for free,” Cole said.

IAFC will soon launch a three-month beta test of NMAS in California, Florida, Tennessee and Utah -- states that already use Mutual Aid Net. Dulin said the full system should be up and running this summer.

Open to states and individual jurisdictions, NMAS comes with a subscription fee based on the size of the area. 

Ultimately, NMAS will be expanded for use by any public safety agency, Lanclos said. “The intent is that the system itself will facilitate resource management" across disciplines. It could be used by  law enforcement as well as emergency management -- "logistical resources for food, water and the like,” he said.

“That’s the long-term vision, ” Lanclos said.  “The National Mutual Aid System will eventually be tested and proven in its capacity here, and then we’ll start to branch out into other segments of public safety.”

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