Future of Preparedness

Emergency management technology facilitates model in post-9/11 world

The sun has set on the manual emergency operations center. Fax machines, portable radios and face-to-face meetings are no longer a viable means for communication and collaboration during an emergency. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the pervasive threat of terrorist attacks, combined with what experts say is an increasing prevalence of natural disasters, demands a more efficient and effective emergency response. Now, emergency managers are looking to technology to maintain awareness of incidents, collaborate across jurisdictional boundaries and facilitate a more informed decision- making process.

Many government agencies, nonprofit organizations and critical infrastructure sectors have turned to technology solutions that provide situational awareness, interoperability and management capabilities. These solutions enable organizations to easily direct planned events, unplanned incidents and daily operational activities, as well as conduct preparedness and training exercises. One such solution, incident management software, also allows emergency managers to collaborate and direct their response and recovery efforts across multiple organizations from a common view, providing a central coordination point.

While each organization is unique, many entities face similar challenges and can reap the benefits of proven solutions. The emergency management situation in Portland, Maine, provides an example of how technology, combined with focused management strategies, can enhance safety and security for citizens and responders.

A Complex Landscape
Portland is the state’s largest metropolitan area and home to one quarter of Maine’s population. During the summer months, Portland’s varied recreational activities as well as its cruise ship port bring more than 3.5 million tourists to the area. Portland’s Office of Emergency Management is responsible for the safety of all tourists and cruise ship patrons, as well as citizens who live and work in the city.

Portland’s location in New England brings winter storms and even occasional hurricanes. Because these storms historically posed the greatest threat to the population, Portland’s emergency management systems were developed with weather-related incidents in mind.

In the past, the city employed a silo-based approach to emergency management, relying on assured means of coordination, like face-to-face meetings. This collective decision-making process worked well because the incidents they managed were very similar and each department knew its roles and responsibilities.

9/11 changed incident response dynamics, driving contemplation of critical vulnerabilities in Portland and across the country. With the realization that terrorist attacks now posed a viable threat, Portland acknowledged the need to modify its emergency management practices. The city required updated processes that could provide a more sophisticated way to manage both manmade and natural disasters.

“Sept. 11 showed us that we needed to expect the unexpected,” said Fred LaMontagne, Portland’s fire chief and director of emergency management. “That includes a need to respond appropriately to incidents as they happen and an understanding of what each discipline within the city is handling at any point in time.”

Turning to Technology
Portland had several criteria for selecting its emergency management technology. First, it sought a solution that was intuitive and easy to use, so critical private entities, like hospitals, could easily leverage the technology during times of crisis. Second, the city wanted real-time views of incident activity across the city and at all related organizations, such as the Red Cross. Finally, Portland desired a solution that could provide robust functionality, including mapping, reporting and resource-tracking abilities to enable informed decision making throughout an incident. After carefully weighing its options, Portland implemented NC4’s E Team emergency management solution to meet its varied needs.

In April 2007, a severe storm provided a real-world test of Portland’s emergency management upgrades. The city sustained $2.5 million worth of damage in just seven hours, resulting in the need for immediate and massive community assistance. Calls flooded the city, with the Portland Fire Department receiving more than 300 calls. By using its emergency management software, the city was able to track incidents, deploy resources to the sites of greatest need and begin recovery quickly—all while easily maintaining the requisite documentation for federal reporting.

“The Patriot’s Day storm is a great example of how Portland can now easily disseminate information during a large incident, efficiently manage our resource deployment and ultimately save taxpayer dollars,” LaMontagne said. “That said, it’s the consistent use of E Team—by both public and private organizations—for smaller, everyday incidents, that really allows Portland to manage the larger emergencies efficiently. We’ve found that training and consistent use of the software are the keys to a successful deployment.”

In 2007, Portland wanted to enhance its emergency management and response arsenal by incorporating a tool that could provide notifications of events that may adversely impact life and safety, business operations and physical assets. The city wanted a solution that allowed it to proactively respond to potential threats rather than waiting for the first incident to occur. Based on its success with NC4’s E Team, and after looking at available products in the market, the city decided to deploy NC4’s external situational awareness solution to meet these needs.

“External situational awareness helps us determine what actions are necessary based on what’s going on nearby,” LaMontagne said. “The emergency management technology then provides the tools to manage and execute the plan in place.”

Many Organizations, One Cause
While we can hope that severe natural and manmade disasters will not happen again, we must prepare for these possibilities by investing in solutions that are right for our communities. Since 9/11, many organizations have identified critical areas for improvement and investigated the best ways to shore up vulnerabilities—making it easier to secure the lives they are dedicated to protecting.

This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Security Today.

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