With the rapid rise of successful technology solutions for many common daily tasks and administrative chores in the workplace, we have seen a corresponding rise in the expectation from the public that local government deliver similar solutions on a grander scale. This has created a variety of challenges for local emergency managers regardless of the size of the jurisdiction.
Over my 39-year professional career I have not only witnessed, but have participated in, numerous projects that focused on adapting technology advancements to challenges facing the organization or agency I was working for. Anything from database management, project collaboration, situational awareness and operational coordination, or simple media presentation and graphic user interface challenges. One thing in particular that I’ve noticed about emerging technology is that when it works, it works great, but when it fails it’s a disaster in and unto itself. Additionally, with the continued threat of cyber attacks, exposing life safety systems to single points of failure is always a concern for emergency managers.
"Developing a technology solution that incorporates the look and feel of what they are used to interacting with could help reduce the amount of anxiety encountered when called to the EOC for an activation"
From an operational perspective my peers and I have been looking for a dynamic workflow system that can be adapted to an emergency operations center environment, commonly referred to as an “EOC.” An EOC is traditionally managed by a small cadre of personnel, and when activated, is staffed by representatives of the various city departments to centrally manage response to an emergency or to coordinate recovery operations. In a sense it is a microcosm of local governance focused on an event.
Depending on the jurisdiction, departmental staff have limited exposure to this working environment throughout the year. Usually no more than 20-30 hours a year in training and exercises. This is the first challenge. How do you manage the workflow of a large group of individuals in a high stress environment who rarely work together on common objectives in a dynamic work environment like an EOC?
In many cases each individual department likely already has a robust data management and/or workflow system that supports its primary mission. EOC staff are knowledgeable in their departmental job classification and are assigned to the EOC due to their ability to manage resources within their area of expertise, along with the authority to make decisions.
A potential course of action would be to create a workflow process in the EOC that more closely aligns with systems and tools already utilized by personnel in their primary work routines. Developing a technology solution that incorporates the look and feel of what they are used to interacting with could help reduce the amount of anxiety encountered when called to the EOC for an activation. As a colleague once told me, “Why ask staff that are used to driving a car to fly a plane? Wouldn’t it suffice to simply offer them a different car to drive?” Such a workflow process would most likely be beyond the capability of most jurisdictions to develop on their own.
When working in the EOC within the action planning process EOC staff are expected to apply their expertise within the confines of specific functions as defined by emergency management doctrine established by the state or federal government. In the State of California, this doctrine is known as the Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS), and at the Federal level, the National Incident Management System (NIMS). Adhering to protocol is important since eligibility for mitigation grants and disaster recovery funding from the state or federal government is predicated upon following these established doctrines.
The second challenge that comes into play when discussing collaboration in an EOC environment are the legal or “need to know” limitations of some databases, such as law enforcement information/intelligence management systems. More broadly, this can include anything from dispatch communications, traffic cameras, field sensors, to critical infrastructure information. If we consider each of these systems to be a resource, then the “siloing” of these resources can be an impediment to robust collaboration in an EOC environment. As such, data collection and management tools that simultaneously support situational awareness, operational coordination and communication, resource management and executive decision-making have so far been elusive.
The third challenge facing EOCs trying to address workflow issues are the differing roles or viewpoints that exist between field operations, department operations centers, emergency operations centers at the city and county level, and the state and federal systems. The needs of first response organizations are the primary focus of the crisis management apparatus of every level of government, and therefore many of the systems we currently have in place are focused on managing those resources. I doubt there is anyone out there that would deny the importance of the life safety activities that first responders engage in. However, within the world of budgetary constraints that most of us operate, I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anyone that more often than not, resources are not commonly placed upon the doorstep of emergency management agencies or organizations. An example of this would be the more robust fire and law enforcement mutual aid and resource management systems that have outpaced their emergency management partners. Hence the challenge of appropriately funding such organizations.
So what does all of this tell us?
In order to meet the workflow demands of the 21st Century new technologies need to be developed that harness existing tools in a way that maintains the integrity of governmental systems, protects privileged, sensitive, or privacy information, simplifies or centralizes resource management, promotes collaboration, coordination, and a common operating picture between levels of government, and addresses the concerns of our constituents, politicians, and policy makers. And on top of that, do it in a way that doesn’t break the bank.
In the ideal emergency management world, there is a marriage between maintaining situational awareness, synergy between existing workflow processes, and ultimately, adherence to doctrinal and documentation protocols. I can easily envision a system where EOC staff, after being notified of an EOC activation, arrive with nothing but a barcoded identification card that when scanned, automatically populates action planning documentation with relevant data and activates links at their workstation to jurisdiction-wide information required for the performance of their function. It might be that this type of technology already exists, but I haven’t seen it built for an EOC environment at the local government level.
In summary, there are technology gaps in how emergency management organizations at the local level maintain situational awareness, affect efficient collaboration and coordination, effectively manage information and intelligence, engage in alert, warning and crisis communications, and protect their jurisdiction through adherence to state and federal laws and regulations. As a lifelong user of technology I believe that a solution can be found, if only we could have the right conversation with the right partners in the technology community. Again, welcome to the 21st century!