Homeland Security Insider

Stepping Up to the Plate

THE role and responsibility of today's emergency responders keeps getting more complicated. Terrorism has changed the landscape for emergency responders forever, as have natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast last August.

The possible use of weapons of mass destruction and dirty bombs, the vulnerability of chemical plants in urban areas, the challenges associated with ground water contamination and the containment of discharges from nuclear power facilities are only a few of the challenges that combine to complicate the world of the emergency response manager.

Regardless of the cause of the incident, a well-coordinated and accountable response is essential for reducing the loss of life and property. The incident manager's job requires preparedness, planning, response and accountability.

The 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon sharpened the focus on these requirements and, in many ways, has encouraged emergency planning personnel to collaborate on common procedures, techniques and technologies to form a coordinated response to incidents and disasters. One of the fundamental reasons Congress created the Department of Homeland Security was to facilitate coordination.

DHS subsequently promulgated the Directives on the Management of Domestic Incidents and National Preparedness, which ultimately became known as the National Incident Management System (NIMS). NIMS establishes standardized incident management processes, protocols and procedures that all responders -- federal, state, tribal and local -- will use to coordinate and conduct response actions.

With responders using the same standardized procedures, they will share a common focus and will be able to place full emphasis on incident management when an incident occurs. In addition, national preparedness and readiness in responding to and recovering from an incident is enhanced since all of the nation's emergency teams and authorities are using a common language and set of procedures. In other words, NIMS provides a best-practice framework for governments at all levels to work effectively and efficiently together.

Primary among these best practices is the ability to coordinate and integrate resources and personnel among jurisdictions and agencies. Full implementation of NIMS requires complete coordination and integration of resources and personnel from various organizations (firefighters, police departments, etc.), multiple jurisdictions (local, regional, state and federal) and different communities of interest (anti-terrorism task forces, HazMat handling task forces, etc.). This multi-agency and jurisdictional coordination and consistency of best practices is the fundamental NIMS objective.

The first step taken by many organizations is compliance with a consistent incident command system. The next challenge then becomes an accountability system, which provides fast and accurate authorization of personnel from many agencies and jurisdictions, in a consistent, secure, accurate, onsite manner.

Good accountability systems must provide more than onsite authorization of a credential. Public safety officials are responsible for the incident scene and must protect it from further damage, danger or contamination. Both public safety and liability are at risk. Most high-impact incident sites are crime scenes, and the integrity of the site must be ensured and protected, archiving detailed records of all personnel and equipment that enter or exit the impacted area.

Containing and controlling an incident site is a first responder obligation and a difficult challenge. Yellow crime scene tape and the "we've always done it this way" manual inspection of identification badges will not be enough. NIMS guidelines provide guidance and oversight, but technology is required to successfully manage the scene. That technology must be weather- and disaster-proof, capable of assisting the responder to secure perimeters and authorizing personnel credentials for site entry and exit. This technology must be feature-rich, but designed for field use and requiring no external sources of power or communications.

Fortunately, there are solutions available. One technology that I've found especially well-designed for facilitating the authentication and flow of onsite personnel in disaster recovery operations is the Smart Disaster Site Management System (SDSMS), manufactured by SuperCom Inc. (www.supercomgroup.com), of McLean, Va.

Just as an emergency manager must comply with NIMS best practices during an incident response, so must the incident accountability system. These requirements include:

  • Coordination and authorization of multi-agency personnel. When multiple agency personnel arrive on scene, they appear with a variety of identification sources and badges. They require immediate authorization, using a system that authenticates them on site, regardless of their agency or jurisdictional affiliation. A uniform standard for personnel authentication is currently lacking in most emergency management organizations.

  • Tracking of personnel. Tracking of personnel -- including both first responders and the public -- in, out and within a scene historically has been virtually impossible. Documenting that movement is largely a manual operation, if performed at all.

  • Communications and power infrastructure. Securing a disaster site is largely a function of manpower, electrical power and communications. Power sources and communications infrastructure are often knocked out by the disaster itself, making the ability to lock down the site very difficult.

  • Weather, hazards and geographic barriers. These natural, geographic, physical and urban impediments many times make a site almost impossible to secure and monitor.

  • Coordinating EOC resources with onsite incident events. Remote organizations, like emergency operations centers, often have responsibility for deploying personnel and tracking events on scene, but have little or no visibility to the situation on the site and, in some cases, little or no communications with local site personnel.

Effective accountability at all jurisdictional levels and within individual functional areas during incident operations is essential. To that end, SuperCom's SDSMS combines wireless communications, authentication, badging and database management for a best-of-breed accountability solution. It's worth a look.


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