Oil Spill Responders Share Information Through Real-Time Emergency Response System

The April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico reminded emergency managers just how critical it is to share up-to-date information in a disaster. When the oil washed up on beaches and threatened lives and property, many agencies had to coordinate rapidly to contain the threat.

While real-time communication has posed a challenge in many past disasters, those agencies involved in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response were aware of a new prototype system -- developed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science & Technology Directorate (S&T) under the Virtual USA (vUSA) initiative. The new system, which made it possible to instantly share information with one another, was a terrific boon to all emergency managers involved.

The Southeast Regional Operations Platform Pilot (SE ROPP) is part of an initiative funded by S&T’s First Responder Technologies (R-Tech) Program and sponsored by S&T’s Command, Control, and Interoperability (CCI) Division. This initiative creates a cost-effective capability to significantly improve information sharing in emergencies throughout the nation, in support of the larger vUSA effort. States throughout the Southeast are now participating in the pilot.

DHS S&T released the prototype system ahead of schedule to assist SE ROPP participants with the oil spill response.

The southeast states thus became the first to explore improved capabilities during a large-scale disaster, right after the oil began leaking into the Gulf. Louisiana officials use Virtual Louisiana -- the state’s system for aggregating and displaying emergency information -- to share oil spill incident reports with neighboring states and federal agencies.

Accessible via a prototype system developed as part of vUSA, this information is updated three times daily and whenever a new report is filed, to help emergency responders stay abreast of the latest oil sightings, beach cleanup efforts, health reports, and affected wildlife. The reports are available to thousands of personnel at the Unified Command (UC) Centers in Mobile, Ala. and Houma, La., as well as state and local agencies in each of the affected states -- Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

“SE ROPP has proved that it’s not the technology, it is a matter of people’s willingness [to share information] and putting agreements in place to resolve interoperability issues and shared information instantly available to better serve [the public] before, during, or after an incident or disaster,” said Christine Lee, program manager for the DHS S&T R-Tech program.

Participating in the SE ROPP gave the states an opportunity to develop a strong regional coalition in preparation for future emergencies. This new coalition is being used in the oil spill response effort, according to Travis Johns, IT Applications Branch Manager for the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. Louisiana officials are using capabilities created through the SE ROPP to share information about oil rig sites, the projected path and density levels of the oil spill, boom sites, seabird nesting colonies, and wildlife management areas with other Gulf states.

“Our agency has always worked very hard to get good, current information to present to decision makers, but participation in Virtual USA has yielded the benefit of improved situational awareness, response, and planning following the oil spill,” Johns said. “The collaboration and information sharing of the emergency operators in the time of crisis is truly notable.”

Emergency managers are using vUSA to improve coordination in myriad ways. In the Florida State Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, state environmental, wildlife, and emergency management officials collaborated to use information from Geospatial Assessment Tool for Operations and Response (GATOR) -- the state emergency preparedness information system Florida built through its participation in the SE ROPP – to make decisions about the oil spill cleanup.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection used maps from GATOR to monitor impacts, helping state officials to pinpoint areas in which the oil could be recovered. The state also used the system to share photographs of locations where oil has been spotted.

“Of particular note, the [Florida State Emergency Response Team] SERT staff has collected over 75,000 geotagged photos, totaling over 240 gigabytes of photos, as well as over 7,000 reconnaissance reports and made them available through GATOR as downloadable shapefiles and via map services,” said David Halstead, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

In neighboring Alabama, Forest Ranger Ethan Barrett, assigned to the State Forward Operations Center, registered for a vUSA account in June 2010. With the account, he could look up whether the state’s beaches were public or private -- information required by the Alabama Emergency Management Agency to determine what procedures must be followed for cleaning up any oil that washed ashore on particular beaches. Barrett anticipates vUSA will have utility during future emergencies, such as when he and colleagues from Alabama Forestry Commission are deployed to assist with forest fires in other states.

“I can see where it’s going to be a big asset,” said Barrett.

Many other emergency responders are accessing vUSA as part of the oil spill response. Marine and wetlands researchers at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs, Miss. and environmental officials from other states also have expressed interest in sharing information via vUSA.

“More than 40,000 local, state, and federal personnel responded to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Kathleen M. Higgins, chief of stakeholder relations for CCI. “Those responders have been working diligently to protect the shoreline and wildlife. Participants in the Virtual USA Regional Operations Platform Pilot collaboratively share real-time data as they decide how best to contain and disperse the oil.”

ROPP participants discuss information sharing, as well as best practices, through the R-Tech program’s First Responder Communities of Practice. This virtual workplace gives emergency responders a secure online space to discuss projects such as vUSA with other responders and homeland security officials. On the Website, first responders and local, state, tribal, and federal homeland security officials can communicate, network, and collaborate on a variety of team projects and critical homeland security initiatives.


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