First Responders, Homeland Security Officials Collaborate In New Virtual Community

First responders can network and collaborate on department policies or homeland security projects easily when they all work in the same office and shift. But, when they all work in different shifts, disciplines, offices, cities or states, suddenly the task grows enormously complex.

To encourage improved collaboration and partnerships, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) First Responder Technologies (R-Tech) program has created a virtual platform where first responders and federal, tribal, state, or local homeland security officials can communicate, network, and collaborate on team projects and critical homeland security initiatives.

R-Tech formally launched the Alpha version of the online platform, called First Responder Communities of Practice, at the Technologies for Critical Incident Preparedness (TCIP) Conference and Exposition in Philadelphia in February.

Communities of Practice is a nationwide network of vetted first responders (active and retired) and homeland security officials. Members of this professional network share information, innovative ideas, lessons learned, and best practices, enabling them to more efficiently and effectively prepare for all hazards.

Registered members can post their profile to aid in networking with members who have similar interests or backgrounds. They also can set up their own communities on the platform to work on specific projects, according to R-Tech Program Manager Jeff Hudkins.

“It’s a virtual collaboration platform that allows first responders across the nation to connect with each other around common interests or initiatives,” Hudkins said. “[Members] can work together collaboratively using the platform, which takes advantage of the social networking capabilities.”

The Communities of Practice platform can help organizations, departments, and teams unify their visions through intra- and inter-agency sharing and collaboration across projects and initiatives. Through this networking and project collaboration platform, first responders can increase awareness and transparency of their work with homeland security stakeholder groups across the country, strengthen and build partnerships, leverage knowledge and resources, facilitate information exchanges, and allow collaboration on critical homeland security projects.

As a result, work across distances and times will be streamlined, and costly duplication of resources and efforts can be greatly reduced.

Hudkins explained that the secure collaboration platform provides several capabilities: threaded discussions, document repositories, blogging, group calendars, and other next-generation Web tools designed to help first responder groups and organizations with their team projects.

For example, members who need other members to edit a document could post a draft in their particular community, and members could use the platform’s wiki tool to leave comments or make changes to the draft. Each member can edit the document when it is convenient for them, and the revisions are saved in a central location everyone can access.

The system eliminates the need for a member to combine many revisions into a single document, according to Hudkins. “Everyone can touch [a document] and make it a little better,” he said. “Over time, the product evolves into a more robust, more mature [document].”

Five groups experimented with a pilot version of Communities of Practice that R-Tech established in December 2007. In 2008, the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) set up a community and subgroups on the pilot platform for about 80 firefighters and emergency management partners, according to Lt. Tony Mussorfiti, who works at the FDNY Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness. FDNY and its partners used Communities of Practice to plan tabletop training and disaster preparedness exercises. They also used the online community to draft best practice documents for FDNY. Using the community to stay in touch between face-to-face meetings helped the members collaborate efficiently, according to Mussorfiti. “This gave us the ability to stay in communication with other agencies in the city in the building of [tabletop exercises],” he said. “You didn’t have to have as many conference calls and face-to-face meetings.”

Once members of FDNY’s community became familiar with the platform, Mussorfiti said they appreciated its benefits. Communities of Practice made it easier for many people to offer input on a project, Mussorfiti noted.

First responders who use Communities of Practice can be assured that they are communicating with vetted colleagues and government officials, Hudkins said. Prospective users must be vetted through a process that involves contacting a sponsor to verify his or her status as a first responder or homeland security official. Active and retired first responders and federal, tribal, state, and local homeland security officials may request a Communities of Practice account at http://www.Communities.FirstResponder.gov.

R-Tech is developing a Beta version of the site that will incorporate additional features and improvements, according to Hudkins. R-Tech plans to continue rolling out improvements to the platform to enhance its functionality and benefit first responders and homeland security officials. Communities of Practice members will help chart the platform’s future course and influence how it develops.

As part of R-Tech’s broader effort to provide useful online resources for first responders, R-Tech also plans to launch a redesigned version of FirstResponder.gov – a comprehensive Website providing access to federal resources for first responders – during the first quarter of 2010.

FirstResponder.gov catalogs Weblinks to federal information on first responder grants, equipment certification standards, testing, and much more. The online portal provides a comprehensive list of federal resources for first responders in one place, according to Hudkins. The redesigned site features a blog highlighting DHS projects that support first responders and articles about emerging first responder technologies. The new Website will be easier for first responders to navigate and quickly find the information they need, according to Hudkins.

The latest issue of the R-Tech Newsletter is posted at http://www.firstresponder.gov/Pages/NewsLetter.aspx. This link also provides access to past issues of the newsletter, as well as the opportunity to subscribe to future issues.

The newsletter is part of the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate’s First Responder Technologies (R-Tech) outreach program to federal, tribal, state, and local first responders. R-Tech’s mission is to protect America against terrorism, disasters, and all other hazards by providing first responder solutions for high priority capability gaps due to technology and assisting first responders through rapid prototyping, technical assistance and information sharing.

For more information, please visit R-Tech’s Website, http://www.FirstResponder.gov.

 

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