Monday, June 14, 2010

A Guest Post - A Call for Technology Solutions

I'm happy to once again offer this spot to my friend Bill Boyd, in this along with him is David Sonnen. Bill is Fire Chief of my town of Bellingham, WA and has contributed several thought provoking blog posts here. This one is longer than most but the call they issue for technology solutions to getting relevant information to responders when they need it is definitely worth considering.

Open architecture for emergency response. A long overdue concept.

Summary: Emergency responders should be able to intuitively and quickly access useful open web-based information to help provide real time situational awareness, information and direction in mitigating wide-ranging emergency incidents. Emergency responders should be able to manage internal collaboration and public discourse from the same system using inclusive and non-proprietary technology solutions.

Imagine, a fire is reported in a dumpster behind an industrial facility in the outskirts of a small city in the middle of the night. A fire engine is dispatched from the local fire department. As they respond, the company officer pulls up a pre-incident plan of the facility on the engine’s mobile data computer (MDC). The plan notes the facility makes "airplane parts", and stores a small amount of hazardous materials on site. No other information is available. The crew arrives to find a police officer casually directing them to the rear of the facility, where they pull up to find a typical sized dumpster with bright red/white flame and white smoke showing from the top. The engine company officer pauses for a moment, thinking the smoke looks a little unusual. He briefly considers contacting the dispatch center to contact the owner of the facility, as he has no way to know what might be in the dumpster. But, seeing that the fire seems to be contained, he orders a hose line stretched to extinguish the fire. Per SOP, both the firefighter and officer are wearing full protective gear, including breathing apparatus. The driver/pump operator charges the hose with water and the firefighter opens the nozzle. Suddenly, a violent explosion picks up both firefighters and throws them 20 feet, showering them with white hot metal fragments. The dumpster peels back like a cheap tin can. Next day, the local paper headlines, "Firefighters Surprised and Injured by Dumpster".

Now, imagine the same scenario, only this time when the engine company arrives the officer, noting the unusual flame and smoke characteristics, turns to his MDC and types; "White hot flame and billowing white smoke, dumpster, airplane parts." The computer screen immediately shows quick links to information that indicates this is not your typical dumpster fire - the contents burning are likely the byproduct of the manufacturing of aluminum airplane parts, and applying water to this type of fire would likely have catastrophic results. The company officer wisely decides to isolate the area, deny entry, call for a hazardous materials team and moves his fire engine away from the dumpster. Soon thereafter, the dumpster melts away, spilling the burning contents onto the concrete where they are quickly consumed. After an hour, all units clear the scene and return to quarters. On the way back, the Captain types a quick note on the unusual situation on his MDC – which automatically updates the department's Facebook, Twitter, and Google Buzz accounts. The local paper doesn't even notice. But a City Council member tweets back, "Nice job".

You may be thinking; what’s the big deal? This information is all over the Internet and easy to find." Yes, there is a wealth of information about hazardous materials, chemical composition, firefighting tactics, after-action reports/lessons learned, etc... But, finding and using this good stuff is another story. Emergency responders should be able to intuitively and quickly access useful web-based information to help provide real time situational awareness, information and direction in mitigating wide ranging emergency incidents. Responders should be able to hold up their end of their conversation with their community -- simply and credibly == in ways that are relevant to their community.

Firefighters encounter unpredictable and deadly situations, requiring rapid size-up, interpretation and action. This environment has many similarities to a battlefield, where field commanders routinely make split second decisions with very limited information. Newly minted officers rely heavily on their training to guide their actions. As they gain experience they compare the situation they are confronted with to their previous similar experiences and base their actions accordingly. In other words, if it worked before it will probably work again. This approach works well most of the time. But, it can also result in complacency or inappropriate actions resulting from an empty slide tray. In these situations an officer needs all the external information they can get, as quickly as they can get it, to rapidly formulate an action plan based on what they see.

The fire service culture honors tradition, honor and sacrifice. While noble traits, they can inhibit innovation and compromise safety. With that said, newly minted emergency responders are well versed in computer skills and likely have tons of experience in using social media tools. Responders in this day and age are used to using Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Digg, Blogspot, etc.. to communicate and assimilate information. A challenge for technology innovators is to ensure tradition does not overtake innovation for the new breed of emergency responders, and build upon this culture shift.
It is time to evaluate the why and how of emergency responder thought processes in emergency situations, and how web based information technologies – present and future- can support and enhance these thought processes, with the goal of helping lifesavers do their jobs safer and more efficiently. Current web search engines are extremely powerful, accessing millions of data points, depending on the type of query. This type of searching is suitable if you are writing a research paper, looking for an old friend or are curious about how to home brew beer. But, an MDC would serve better as a wheel chock than an effective emergency decision making tool given how information is commonly retrieved currently.

Emergency services depend on technology. But, sometimes our technologies could work a lot better for us than they do. New technology is likely to need years of patching, changing and reissuing (at our expense) before it is really useful. Now we have a thundering herd of new stuff stampeding down the tech road.

We think it would be a good idea to try to get ahead of the thundering herd by giving the technologists a better idea of what we actually need. So, we started writing down the things we know and the things that we would like technologists to think about as they build out new emergency response systems. The lists below are our first cut.

We think that all of us are smarter than a couple of us. We'd like this article to be a starting point for serious discussions about what future technologies should do for our emergency response community and the communities we serve. We think that our professional organizations should focus and consolidate our collective tech requirements.

With that said, here's a list of discussion points.

New things we know for sure

The technology sector has yet to create a widely adopted standard platform for deep web search and filtering user interface tools for the emergency response community. Most emergency response agencies have not embraced use of social media tools, search, or even use basic information tools as currently configured.
Most public sector emergency response agencies cannot afford expensive proprietary information systems.
Information extracted from the Web could be valuable in pre-planning, training, and real-time emergency operations.
Emergency response agencies are concerned about the security of social media sites and the impact on the transparency of government.
Most people use computers and use the Internet. Many use social media to communicate and gather information
Robust, real-time sophisticated data streaming and filtering systems are already being used by specific sectors (Financial institutions and nuclear safety for example).
Open software and open data are easier to adopt and less expensive than proprietary systems.

Questions for discussion

Can most-if not all- emergency response information requirements be met with a single, integrated approach?
Does it make sense to link social media tools that push out information and search tools that retrieve critical information for responder use?
What are some of the categories of information available on the web that may be useful in an ongoing emergent situation?
What search, data access, and filtering barriers do response agencies encounter that hinder their response preparedness capabilities?
What are the requirements emergency responders have to easily access emergent information?
What are the device constraints, if any, to accessing and using dynamic Web-based information in field operations?
What tools currently exist that can be used or reconfigured to assist in searching, accessing, analyzing and publishing dynamic information for field operations?
Can data and/or interface standards contribute to the value of emergency response data?
What are the social and cultural barriers to using effective information in the emergency response community?
What organizational capabilities are in place to promote the effective use of new information technologies? E.g.: ICS, national or regional training/ certification, professional organizations, informal channels.

Design Considerations/ Requirements

The system has to be easier to use than not to use.
Any user experience must be self-re-enforcing. That means that the user will get something of real, tangible value from any use of the system.
User interfaces must be independent of the underlying business logic. This means that any interface can be tailored to an individual's specific, local needs.
While source data may be unstructured and unformatted, the user must see predictable, consistent information in forms that are familiar to each user.
The system must operate in connected, occasionally connected and unconnected environments.
System must screen and secure sensitive data like personal health and national security information.
The system must be freely available to qualified users, and scalable from 1 user to hundreds working in a real or virtual crisis Joint Information Center (JIC).
Much, if not most, information will be in the deep Web behind various forms, firewalls and other barriers. When duly authorized, the system must be able to search and access deep Web sources.
Collaboration will be an important element in the system. Any collaboration tools must be freely available, simple and scalable. Collaboration tools must be compatible with major social media sites.
The platform(s) must be designed in anticipation that various social media platforms will transition in and out of favor. Therefore, the interfaces must be as flexible and universal in capturing current and future social integration media.
The system must capture local citizen comments, opinions and ideas about each local agency. Citizens must be able to become involved, ask questions and participate in discussions about the local, regional agencies or specific incidents. The local agency must be able to easily track trends, manage citizen and media requests and monitor real time dialog from multiple platforms.

Right, now, a huge emergency response effort is underway in the gulf coast to stop a gushing deep underwater oil well and organize an unprecedented and long term cleanup effort. Researchers, scientists, industry, government, safety officials and public relations experts are hard at work trying to stop the spill and limit the resulting environmental and political damage. This response and cleanup "machine" is not only searching out all possible data, research and ideas, it is also monitoring the impact of its efforts on the people, environment, government and the oil industry. The Web 2.0 "Cloud" is undoubtedly being used in intense and unique ways, and while some impacts of this innovation are likely already being identified, others may be not realized and widely known for some time. It is likely discipline specific ad hoc search databases, search tools and filters have been created by command staff and technical specialists to assist them in quickly researching relevant information. Likewise, these tools are providing real time intelligence about public perception, rumors and "ground truth" observations. This type of integration is exactly what is needed on broader basis within the emergency response community. It should not have to take an unprecedented environmental disaster to make it happen, but we can use this opportunity.

The next steps are up to you. As a community and profession, we can work to have better technologies or we can let technologists guess what we need. We challenge those in the technology sector to work with the emergency response community to further refine the questions and concepts listed above to improve public safety. To quote writer William Gibson, "The future is here. It is just not evenly distributed."

David Sonnen is a geospatial technology consultant and writer. His past work includes serving in emergency services and working for a Type 1 Incident Management Team. He has a degree in Forestry. His publications through International Data Corporation (IDC) have been surprisingly accurate in predicting future tech trends.

Bill Boyd is the Fire Chief for the Bellingham, Washington Fire Department. He serves as a incident commander for the Northwest Washington Incident Management Team- a regional Type III all-hazards team. He is a graduate of Western Washington University and the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program.

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