Thursday, 15 May 2014

Change can be painful. Recovery prescription includes Technology

City of Los Angeles Emergency Operations Center

Expertise, technology and access to information enhances emergency management capabilities across the board. Domains and stakeholders are entering an new era of cooperation, creating new lines of dialog, and support expertise to enhance and develop response options for almost any contingency plan desired. It has become clear, the more open an organization is (access) the more likely weaknesses can be exposed and rectified. Local, county, regional and federal resources are often stretched beyond their intended limits. Off loading responsibilities farther down to the local civic level has become a habit that is proving difficult to stop. But when is enough, enough and is more always better?

Crisis and disaster scenarios do not always follow identical paths in predicted analysis or outcomes, that is, no two industrial disasters, fires, floods, hurricanes, or tornado's will impact a community the same way. Some crisis events take months to unfold and suddenly ignite as was the case with Ford vs. Firestone, winding up before Congress in packed hearings in the process. There have been tornado's that followed similar paths as occurred earlier this year in Vilonia, Arkansas (2010 & 2014, to the week), Moore, Oklahoma (1999 & 2013), Tupelo, Mississippi (1936 & 2014). The issue is not that a storm causes similar destructive potential, but the composition of a community's disaster capabilities and disaster management changes over time. Expectations in disaster preparedness and response have dramatically changed. Analysis of numerous lessons learned reports do not correlate why some post event outcomes have not changed or in other non-identical disaster events.

There are a number of reasons why this occurs including government policy, resource management, community awareness and culture and technology used. In particular, a persistent theme is that response agencies can do more with less through the use of technology. This belief has led to the idea that costs can be contained while improving agency and department response at all levels. National and State government policy have begun to shift costs further down to the county and local level establishing protocol that additional resources will only be available after the fact (Declaration of State of Emergency) further stressing local management resources and preparedness planning options and capabilities. The transfer of risk and liability has also shifted as local governments begin to educate the population that preparedness and recovery is a personal responsibility conveying a message government agencies can and will fail when facing severe stress. This is a recurring theme around the world and is not just occurring in the United States.

Some agencies do learn from events that are known to reoccur.  River floods can be predicted in some regions such as the Red River that spans Minnesota, North Dakota and Manitoba. The annual spring thaw of snow and ice is analyzed to predict river flow rates and heights.

Years would go by with minor flooding over its banks causing no serious alarms or reviews. Yet, Governments knew there were risks, but the question remained, how to prepare without going broke. Since 1826, there has been 20 flood events worthy of note. 2009's flood covered 589 square miles across Manitoba, North Dakota and Minnesota. The Red River flows north from the U.S. into Canada with cooperation between the two countries on the issue of the disaster response being one of limited interaction and planning. Scientific data was shared, but plans to response and recovery were independent of each other. Each year, between early February and March, analysis varied as to the river crest heights in all three regions. Everything depended on what sensors (of the day) could interpret. Satellite reconnaissance proved valuable in understanding potential flood plains and potential population areas. Today the ability to analyze and detect problem areas has improved tenfold both on the ground along with satellite based advanced remote sensing technology such as NOAA provided LIDAR. Red River flood lesson's learned (Manitoba) and review (NOAA - North Dakota) have fundamentally changed how agencies prepare and manage the ice (jams) on the river each spring. The government of Manitoba publishes flood prediction reports, identifying areas of vulnerability with improved accuracy. All three regions still face risk from flooding if winter snow and ice build up above average norms and heavy rains are experienced before ice can thaw with moderate to severe impacts, but all three regional governments are better prepared through the use of technology and planning.

Since the early 2000's, many western national and state / provincial governments have followed two approaches to emergency management policy and financial support. The first was to build large cluster Emergency Operation Centers (EOC's) that could support large scale crisis and disaster events to implement Incident Command System procedures and protocol. The second was to fund their construction and start up. As a result, they began operating around the clock (but not all), manned with senior civil servants and agency commanders. Integrated into city government operations centers, the 'system' is tied into their respective provincial and national peers. Not all are not fully integrated as many might expect. Nor are all EOC's fully meshed with communications, secure computer and device networking with access to closed and open information systems such as the internet. Many of the operations centers we see today were funded through grants by federal decree. This pattern trickled down to the local and regional levels. These programs significantly improved emergency response management capabilities that did not exist 20 years ago. The Achilles of these funding mechanisms was that they were (often) one time fusions of capital investment and not continued or given annual operating funding upon completion. Some are well equipped with basic essentials while others attempted to leap frog several generations of legacy and current day systems to be next generation becoming test cells of what does and does not work. As is the case with many government procurement programs, early adopters paid the price as cost overruns surfaced creating split outcomes and performance capabilities, compromising intended objectives.

The result is a plethora of different technologies and services implemented throughout the world. Most but not all are fully inter-operable with many having limited application interface (API) capability unless customized or upgraded for many of the technology and applications currently in use. The results often build divisions instead of inclusion between agencies and departments. Change is continuous as mistakes are identified and corrected. As emergency management operation centers has matured in their value, organizations have begun to review what gaps and elements should be next in line for integration into the core. Over the past decade, funding and expertise costs have skyrocketed in directions many agencies can currently ill afford. They want to do more, but have to do so with less money than in the past.

The laws of economics are never far away

Many agencies have come to the conclusion that simply having access to more technology or information is not necessarily going to improve preparedness and response capabilities. Under review and analysis are items that many consider essential. These include social media, open & big data, geospatial mapping, GPS monitoring and location services, broadband communication networks and front line (field) visual operations tools and platforms. Not only is access and availability under review, but the support and maintenance costs associated with them have become issues of concern. Local and regional comptrollers are dealing with civic officials creating new capital and operating cost models that are sometimes based on vague or confusing metrics. As a result, critics are implying operations are not following local policy expectations.

With these issues in mind, administrators are now faced with these essential questions;

1) Performance value of an technology or application relative to usefulness per person and population served.

2) Capital and Operating cost of a platform or product per (employee) user and person served

3) Procurement and product life cycle management

This is followed by an analysis of effective usefulness relative to policy objectives that is subjective in interpretation. On the table as mentioned are various types of disaster risks a community faces and how best to effectively carry out operations internally and to the public. We have reported and illustrated different levels of success in many of our DDRS magazine editorials. A nagging problem still arises as to relative value in investments that need to be made. How much technology is really needed and can communities afford them? It may seem obvious that cities with large populations have more effective purchasing and support power than smaller towns and regions. This argument is often a red herring and used as part of a regions case for provincial, state or federal assistance. In many countries this issue never occurs, because all capital and operational emergency management services costs are federally funded. This has its drawbacks as risks and types of disaster vary from region to region and often come under criticism for not reflecting local needs. In some regions, a blend of both occurs. Civil protection technology is standardized (and approved) by federal agencies and departments and instituted only where each product and service is needed or wanted. How each civil protection agency actually implements and operates new or upgraded services is left in the hands of local authorities. Germany has implemented this kind of program across all 16 Länder states. In some regions of the world, hybrids have surfaced where a community, town or regional government authority builds specialized needs that are locally created, but offered elsewhere within the country on a voluntary or mutual aid agreement on a case by case basis.

Achieving the right balance is a difficult and daunting task for many emergency management organizations. The procurement process moves along with inputs from experienced incident command system (ICS) leadership groups requirements and needs that are often neglected, raising more questions than there are answers. Technology and services platforms (e.g. Comms equipment, mapping technology, GPS personnel monitoring, HAZMAT, dispatch systems, etc.) that achieve more than one series of tasks and integrate into reporting, tracking, real-time asset management along with information distribution to stakeholders are high priority acquisitions. This is especially true if information sharing can also be redistributed to the public. But the costs are significant and not always perceived as having sufficient ICS value. Do we really need to have GPS tracking of every fireman and police officer along with paramedics displayed on a local command map? (the answer is yes in many scenarios) While technically possible, will it improve performance and save lives? (probably not in towns with no heavy industries) Does the availability of mapping every fire hydrant, hospital status, water main, electric sub-station, oil pipeline, airport operations status, the tracking of every police car and ambulance on a series of display monitors make a difference? Does the integration of such information improve command and control of a situation?

Large structural disasters answer this question with little argument. But overall, responses will inevitably fall on both sides of yes and no. Examples are often easy to point out. Fire Departments that automatically check city records for classification of building, HAZMAT permits, etc, before deployment is carried out, the answer is yes - if it is enforced. The cost of this level of information support and processing is passed on through the business license fees collected (at least, we hope it is). New technology and data access services will only drive these costs up, often a policy sore spot and area of neglect. This small illustration is just one of many areas that create contention and debate. At the macro level, the problems are not so easily summarized. Lately, communications and the management of resources have been under the microscope. Fire departments and brigades along with paramedics (EMT's) are beginning to integrate advanced technology and systems into the front line where it makes sense and if they can afford it. But are they looking at the right investments and choices?

Question: When should technology be secondary to operating budget

In British Columbia, the provincial government has overhauled ambulance dispatch procedures, changing how the system prioritizes and classifies calls creating confusion and complaints in the communities it serves at a recently held municipal association meeting reflecting wide spread opposition to the changes made. Many considered it to be another example of off-loading the problem to the local fire department EMT level and thus pushing costs each respective city. Technology has nothing to do with, but in fact, has quietly played a significant role through detailed logs collected and analyzed to reset Ambulance service protocols and what services are prioritized. At what point could GPS monitoring and tracking and its metadata (which could record type of call, location, patient status, operational status) become central in how services are operated across the province. Such technology is a consideration, but is not currently available. But it is coming. How next generation dispatch systems and technology is implemented requires scale and size, which is exactly what the GVRD is implementing. It should save lives and money over the long term. What is clear to municipal stakeholders, the Mayors of the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD), is that there is a need to prepare for next generation demands - a reset. Compared to what was in place prior to the changes is increasing anxiety. The perception is that the system in some cases, illustrates no tangible improvements in service. Some GVRD leaders believe services are not reflecting public policy and guidelines. This ignores the fact that the system is one of the most efficient anywhere in the world. When compared to other municipalities and regional operating authorities, the network and services offered are well balanced and very effective. Compare GVRD's system to Los Angeles and the L.A. County, the differences are night and day.

Instead of a full internal technology and operating policy review by analyzing the demands and needs of all stakeholders, the provincial government changed what and how services the B.C. Ambulance Service (with review by an independent expert) delivered daily operations and in what priority. B.C. has the third lowest cost of ambulance service in Canada (approximately $80.00 per call). In southern Los Angeles, Fire Department operated ambulance, taking an non-emergency trip one mile can cost you $1,000.00 (the L.A. average is $1,200) where efficiency and operating protocol have little influence or impact.  You would think a city the size of  Los Angeles has the scale of economy and population would drive down costs, where in fact the opposite is true, a city with a 3.38M people is 75 percent of the entire province of B.C. (4.4M) that covers 364,000 square miles compared to L.A.'s 503 sq. miles. On the surface, it suggests that the implementation and integration of commercial Los Angeles ambulance service providers into Emergency Management operations or its dispatch facilities would not change efficiency, performance or provide improved results because of the variety of suppliers used. B.C. believes its model could.

Dynamic operating environment - upgrading across the board

Like many large metropolitan cities across the U.S., the city of Los Angeles required major upgrades to public safety infrastructure and facilities. In 2002, the city built an entirely new Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Since then, changes and upgrades were often made sporadically or put over due to budget constraints or scrapped all together. Its public safety agencies operating budgets rival some small countries total GDP. City Fire Department (LAFD) operating budget alone is $513M for 2012/13

The EOC is the focal point for coordination of the City’s emergency planning, training, response and recovery efforts. EOC processes follow the National All-Hazards approach to major disasters such as fires, floods, earthquakes, acts of terrorism and large-scale events in the City that require involvement by multiple City departments. Also co-located in this state-of-the-art, 84,000 square feet, two-story, seismically-base-isolated facility are a new Fire Dispatch Center, Fire Department Operations Center and the Police Department Real-Time Analysis and Critical Response (RACR) Division and Operations Center. (source: LAFD)

Los Angeles is one of the oldest cities in the U.S. Its composition is diverse and spread out over a wide area with limited natural defenses and expansion of public safety options. The city undergoes stages of change in cycles and spurts that are often influenced by unpredictable outside forces such as climate change, the economy, culture and demographics.

Silent transition

Now over 12 years old, many of its EOC systems were transferred from other facilities during its first years in operation to ensure compatibility of systems installed throughout the 3 main organizations, the Police, Fire and Paramedic services. Many of those systems are no longer vendor supported with spare parts and maintenance is becoming more challenging by the day. Not only are technology and replacements limited, like the GVRD, the demands on what emergency services being used began to change. Large residential and commercial structural fires, industrial accidents and other catastrophic events began to fall to the point that they only comprise of approximately 20% of 911 calls, while all categories of healthcare EMT related calls shot up. (side note: both regions age demographics, specifically those 65+ years are increasing significantly B.C. Stats & Los Angeles Stats increasing pressure on healthcare emergency support services)

The Los Angeles Fire Department also has 43 Basic Life Services (BLS) units and 93 Advanced Life Services (ALS) units spread across 14 Battalions at 106 stations in addition to the commercial operated ambulance paramedic services mentioned above. The LAFD's BLS and ALS utilization has skyrocketed over the past two decades. As building codes improve along with their enforcement, traditional Fire Department calls have fallen. Like all large cities, the lingering problem remains, how does a department prepare for an all out disaster while maintaining tactical and strategic reserves? The answer could be a blend in the use of technology and reconfiguration of services, while not eliminating a single (apparatus) piece of equipment. But the LAFD faces technology upgrade challenges noted above. Between 2012 and 2013, it was identified that major upgrades for communications networks and devices, computer systems, dispatch hardware and software in addition to a new asset management system were all needed by the department, including the installation of GPS on all ALS/BLS rescue units.

As a consequence, public safety agencies and government leaders are under considerable scrutiny. What works in one city, even if the same size and complexity, e.g. New York, will not necessarily apply to Los Angeles. Ever since the introduction and mandatory use in the U.S. of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) in 2002 and Incident Command System*, organizations upgrading technology and services have faced significant EOC to field integration issues. Most LAFD essential service elements are overdue for replacement. Enabling improved next generation command and logistics support technology in terms of delivery and metrics have been handicapped for several years and could take longer than anticipated. It may appear that administrators are moving too slow. In March of this year, the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications Service (LA-RICS) concluded agreements to begin construction of 700 MHz LTE network.

Manitoba, North Dakota and Minnesota believe they have found the right vaccine that improves their defenses and preparedness planning by investing in the use of technology to monitor potential flood disasters. The GVRD and Los Angeles are faced with a different illnesses with a cure that needs to overcome a series challenges and road to advanced cures. Both are experiencing different symptoms with varying degrees of pain and need to check with specialists before the right prescription allows them be discharged.

* ICS - In California, it's called SEMS; Standard Emergency Management System, in B.C. - BCERMS: B.C. Emergency Management Response System since 2007.

Author note: GPS (Global Position System) is just one of many technologies in play, e.g. GPS enabled radios, vehicle monitors, etc. Others include HAZMAT / CBRN technology such as chemical detection sensors, BlueTooth enabled integrated communications into helmets, video, etc. some with GPS chipsets.

This post is dedicated to Barbara Glancy (1938- May 15th, 2014), Wife of a Firefighter (Chuck Glancy 1937-1994).

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