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9-1-1 Magazine: Managing Emergency Communications

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City of Fort Worth Embraces Smarter Public Safety System, Evolves into a Social Business

Author: Caleb Barlow and Clay Wheeler

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-05-25
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Using IBM's unified communications software integrated with radio-over-IP software from UnifiedEdge, employees in the new emergency response center in Fort Worth can more quickly respond to calls for help.

 

Following the events of September 11th and other high-profile disasters of the past decade, both natural and man-made, cities around the world have focused their efforts on making infrastructure more instrumented, interconnected and intelligent.  These efforts deliver improved efficiencies in coordinating emergency response, protecting people and generally operating safer cities.

Across the country, improving how emergency responders can be organized for maximum effectiveness has been a challenge. Although significant investments have been made in upgrading communications infrastructure post 9/11, there are still barriers that exist between areas of responsibility (police, fire and medical) and jurisdiction (local, state and federal), as well as across mutual-aid districts.  In a large incident it is important, and difficult, to link communications across non-emergency supporting agencies such as public works, aviation and transportation, as these departments are often on separate systems and different communications channels.

Progressive cities have responded by undertaking transformational shifts, including the creation of emergency response centers to collaboratively respond to emergencies and proactively recognize and anticipate such events. These centers are applying innovative, community-based approaches to these challenges and embracing new technologies to organize emergency responses more efficiently.  It doesn’t matter if the event is weather-based, or a planned event such as public celebrations.  These new response centers utilize smart systems that capture data from a variety of instrumented and interconnected processes and technologies, and apply this intelligence to take action in real time.

For example, the city of Fort Worth, Texas can now more quickly respond to calls for help and communicate instantaneously with more than 40 agencies and departments across Texas. Fort Worth’s Office of Emergency Management is the agency responsible for operating the 100-seat Joint Emergency Operations Center (JEOC), which communicates regularly with city and county agencies; state agencies such as the Texas Department of Public Safety; several federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and non-governmental agencies, including public utilities companies and the American Red Cross. The new center was built using both city capital projects and operating funds, as well as Homeland Security grant funds, to address the balance of non-construction related equipment and infrastructure improvements.

When city departments and emergency management agencies assemble in a command center, decision-makers need to be in regular contact with people in the field. The most practical way to do this is with two-way radios. But in a large command center environment, having dozens of radio channels operating at the same time can make for a loud, distracting situation during a large incident. Key information may not be heard or passed along to the right people or departments.  Situational awareness is reduced at the exact moment it is most important.

One of the planned services of the new infrastructure looked to find a solution to address the challenges traditional communications centers face. The solution the city of Fort Worth sought out needed to:

  • deliver radio communication clearly in both one-to-one and one-to-many situations in an open area environment without disrupting the environment or increasing the number of radios used;
  • enable functionality, such as teleconferencing, expertise location and group chat for users who are not traditionally accustomed to using them;
  • decrease response times and increase accuracy of responders in the field by providing new situational awareness for the command chain that could support more intelligent tactical decisions.

To improve decision-making capabilities of its public safety and emergency response command chain, the City of Fort Worth has integrated its traditional radio communication with the extendibility and flexibility of a web-based unified communication solution. The city’s JEOC has deployed IBM Sametime software which included a plug-in, RadioConnect™, developed by IBM Business Partner UnifiedEdge. This plug-in allows users in the JEOC to monitor and talk to multiple radio channels while sitting at desktop PCs.

The operations center can accommodate approximately 100 emergency management representatives from all levels of government including decision-makers for command, fire, police, medical, emergency medical, aviation, and even city maintenance.

The integrated software solution moves radios to an IT server room and eliminates the need for secondary hand-held radios or scanners at each station. Each of the 24 radios are connected to the software solution via a specialized hardware radio gateway that digitizes the audio and allows it to be both captured and pushed to and from radio networks via the IP network. With the digitization of the audio, the resulting data can be manipulated and extended in new ways.

With the new solution, command center personnel can now use desktop software equipped with headsets to monitor and interact with any radio channel, This helped reduce the number of radios needed to be operational and support the JEOC, which lowers costs, but more importantly, provides new communications capabilities.

In addition to one-to-one communications, the solution offers one-to-many and many-to-many channels to distribute information. For example, traditionally, an ambulance dispatcher in the command center can speak directly with paramedics en route to the scene of an accident. With the new solution, the public works representative in the JEOC can monitor the same ambulance channel and inform paramedics of street closings or traffic conditions, while the local hospital representative can also listen in to the channel and divert the ambulance to avoid emergency room overload or be prepared to provide specific care, based on patient need. In the past, these messages were either not communicated, or were communicated up-and-down their respective command structures, resulting in potential for miscommunication and delay.

Although the ability to monitor multiple frequencies has been around for decades, this solution moves this capability into software, and therefore enables new social business capabilities, such as the ability to profile field personal, enable expertise location, and provide instant messaging and presence between stations in the command center.

The City of Forth Worth can now offer the staff greater situational awareness by offering the ability to “subscribe” to relevant channels that they either directly monitor as part of their responsibility, or to monitor as needed during a specific event or action. The solution essentially creates radio and chat channels that can be opened or bridged temporarily to address a specific need and to gather key decision-makers both in the field and in the command center. The radio capabilities allow organizations to model group communications channels to match their preferred incident management system organization model, allowing communications resources to be directed to channels related only to skill or position set needs. For example, logistical or planning communications are directed to group communication channels for which only personnel assigned to support these skill set and position needs are listening on.

The ultimate test of the new facility and technology was the 2011 Super Bowl held February 6, 2011 at Texas Stadium in nearby Arlington.  During the week of the Super Bowl, as many as 168 separate users monitored the radio traffic over the desktop clients, and on Super Bowl Sunday a peak of 70 simultaneous clients were utilized during one shift.

A massive winter storm during the week prior to the big game caused freezing temperatures and icy conditions, straining the already busy workforce. In an area where any snow accumulation can be devastating, a wintery mix can shut down a city. Because of this winter storm, approximately 40 water mains froze and ruptured.  Area public works departments quickly scrambled to repair these broken water mains, while road closures and other emergencies occurred throughout the city. The software enabled the agencies to work together to streamline operations through several dedicated channels on each headset to communicate which streets were clear so emergency vehicles could get through and also communicate about the status of repairs.

In the past, these public works departments would have been on separate radio systems and would not have communicated with any type of public safety entity. As a result of the new solution, public works representatives could communicate directly with traffic control and security teams. When a large main broke on a route to the stadium while 40 buses of NFL players and guests were in transit, the center coordinated efforts to keep traffic moving and fixed the main without disrupting the big game.

During the game, crews from the JEOC, Public Works, the security and police force and maintenance crews were able to maintain constant communication while responding to issues as they arose quickly and efficiently. Unlike radio communications, in which it can be difficult to tell who is speaking, RadioConnect allows users to “see” each other. When a user keys into the radio channel, IBM Sametime identifies their name and agency on everyone’s screen, providing command awareness. During the events leading up to the Super Bowl and the game itself, decision makers were immediately identified via the solution, driving greater accountability to their actions. The radio-over-IP solution also allows enhanced data capture and archiving for ensuring that policies and procedures have been followed.

In addition, while the command structure is able to more closely monitor the situation in the field, it also allows smaller agencies or emergency staff to quickly request assistance. For example, a small rural fire department in north Tarrant County can quickly become overwhelmed by a fast moving grass fire, which has far-reaching impact on highway traffic throughout the metro area and even local aviation. Emergency staff, in addition to the fire fighters, can quickly mobilize to help during the event. The City of Fort Worth has invested significant funds in 800 MHz trunk radio systems, but rural outlying areas may not have access to those same systems. If the rural fire department can more easily request and receive back up assistance, then the likelihood of loss of life and property are significantly diminished.

Enhanced communication in the field has created, for the first time, a coordinated response system that delivers faster, more accurate delivery of resources during emergencies. Fort Worth’s 40 local, state and federal agencies are preventing small emergencies from becoming big ones by talking directly with each other using unified communications and radio-over-IP.

Because of this new integrated software solution, decision-makers now have increased real-time presence awareness – knowing what resources are available and where they are located, and increased operational awareness – knowing when and how to apply those resources. And, command officials have better insight into every situation and can direct the most appropriate response.

Incorporating this unified communications solution increased cooperation and synergy of action between all levels of government.  The seamless support operations surrounding the Super Bowl proved the city can handle the security and public safety demands of a major public event.

 

Caleb Barlow is the Director of Unified Communications and Collaboration at IBM.  He literally “grew up” in a fire station and he has been a practicing EMT/Firefighter in Orland, Maine and Rochester, NY.

Clay Wheeler is the Director of Business Development at UnifiedEdge. With a 26 year career in military communications and information technology, he applies many of the lessons learned to his current responsibilities.

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