Get the Message Across

The emergency management system in Montgomery County, Md, has been a constant work in progress—one the county consistently evaluates and re-evaluates. The county has made a series of improvements since the completion of its command center, which combined police, fire, traffic management, 911 and dispatch. Not surprisingly, a centralized system for all emergency management personnel, as well as one integrated with neighboring communities, is critical for this Washington, D.C., suburban county.

The command center was designed before Sept. 11, 2001, and opened in the early part of 2002. It was appropriate that county officials had already begun work on making communications possible between different agencies.

Since then, the Montgomery County Fire District has developed a notification subscriber system, internal and external notification capabilities for a variety of situations, and radio transmissions between fire and police. For example, the district’s paging system sends a simultaneous digital alert to all agencies, unlike the previous paging system that could manage only one page at a time. Fire personnel and other county employees today receive daily notifications of events, including emergency incidents, hospital closures and traffic problems, said Peter Piringer, Montgomery County Fire Department spokesman.

This type of system crosses the old barriers between different agencies, such as fire and police, and different communities, such as the District of Columbia and its neighbors in Virginia and Maryland. Piringer calls it a seamless communication system between all members of the National Capital Region, allowing police and fire personnel from multiple districts to coordinate emergency response. The public is included in much of the notification, as residents can receive emergency notifications if requested.

It is a system the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would like to see take hold across the country. Increasingly, fire districts and municipalities are re-evaluating their existing communications systems and using federal money to help upgrade.

Today, most of the nation’s 100,000 emergency response agencies are unable to rapidly, accurately and easily communicate data with each other or the public, according to a report by Comcare, a nonprofit advocacy organization for advancing emergency communications. That means the president, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other governing officials do not have the ability to send or receive secure emergency messages to most of the emergency agencies.

The DHS hopes to change that. The agency wants all local districts and agencies to be interoperable. As it heads for that goal, the DHS is using the tactical interoperable communications scorecard, which reviews and scores the maturity of interoperable communications capabilities in 75 urban or metropolitan areas. The DHS developed the scorecards to encourage densely populated counties and fire districts to establish communications plans, exercises and a self-assessment. These measures are intended to establish consensus findings and recommendations for each region on how to best improve that region’s communications capabilities. Technological interoperability will have to include some level of outdoor warning system, cameras and the ability to capture high-speed video.

Integration and installation work for these systems goes to a variety of information technology integrators and low-voltage electrical contractors. And for both, business is picking up.

The growth in communications systems demand is felt most heavily by the technology vendors themselves. Safety and security systems provider Federal Signal Corp., Oak Brook, Ill., met with 27 different cities in the past six months, said Mike Wons, vice president and general manager of Federal Signal’s public safety systems division. With the growth in emergency management, he said, there are four main challenges facing municipalities and counties.

First, there is no good model for users, despite the huge proliferation of emergency management systems coming out of the manufacturing industry. The rapid growth of broadband networks makes trying to find a model for public safety a challenge, as the technology and structure change too quickly.

Without that model, finding ways to communicate across jurisdictions is even more difficult. While there are UHF, digital and analog networks, there is little connection between them.

“That’s still a huge problem,” Wons said.

The National Institute of Justice, in its 2004 “Crisis Information Management Software Feature Comparison Report,” found there was no significant effort underway to standardize different software products. The report finds that until efforts are made to develop and distribute standards, automated exchange of information between agencies will continue to be problematic. According to the report, “The solution to this problem lies only partly with the industry. The larger share of this responsibility belongs to the user community to establish standards and insist on products that meet this important requirement.”

What’s your frequency?

Another large source of discord lies with frequencies—finding the spectrum and frequency that agencies can share. In January 2008, the FCC auctioned off the 700-MHz spectrum, most of which went to AT&T and Verizon, and the convergence of communication has yet to be accomplished.

To address the absence of communication sharing, the WebEOC suite, developed by crisis information management technology provider ESi, Augusta, Ga., is an Internet-enabled collaborative crisis information management system that provides real-time information sharing between agencies. WebEOC links together local, state, federal, volunteer, private and other sources and provides users with a common operating picture, giving responders and managers access to the critical operational data they need to quickly make sound decisions.

For example, the software allows servers to send fully encrypted data to other WebEOC users or third-party systems, using a central communications hub. Users can share information with WebEOC through status boards created on the system.

Too much video?

Another challenge still facing the emergency management market is the proliferation of digital video.

“Anyone can slap up an IP-based camera,” Wons said, adding that cities across the country are doing so for a variety of purposes. Chicago, for example, boasts 70 percent video coverage of all its city streets.

The problem is what to do with all the data. The backhaul of network analytics has caused a problem for many municipalities that still rely on employees to view the footage—an unrealistic expectation.

London and Chicago have been sharing their efforts to resolve that problem, looking at high-speed analytics, with programs such as automatic license plate recognition, which compares license plates against crime databases, Wons said.

Getting the word out

The final challenge is in notification—reaching out to citizens in an emergency such as a natural disaster, fire, or chemical spill or contamination. Many communities are building systems to notify all residents, including making phone calls, sending text messages, e-mails or instant messages. But most are not. The cost of adding notification features, or eliminating an existing system and starting from scratch, discourages many municipalities.

Because of those costs, many technology vendors and integrators are attempting to allow an agency to keep its existing system intact. Few communities can afford to rip out their existing network and start all over again.

Notification systems are not always outside local government’s reach, and more urban areas are implementing systems that can communicate with their neighbors. Wayne County, Mich., has installed a wide-area alerting and notifying system known as Codespear, provided by Federal Signal. Residents sign up for the notification system and opt for different layers of alerts depending on the level of issue. For example, a street closure could be sent to those who opted in, while others might receive only extreme emergency information. Coordinating with Wayne County is Monroe County, home to the Fermi 2 Nuclear Power plant. It can communicate with its own residents as well as with fire and rescue services in neighboring counties.

Any notification system must be fail-safe. Regardless of the infrastructure in place, emergency workers need the ability to communicate, which usually requires several levels of redundancy. If power goes out, systems need, for example, a satellite system to retain communication systems.

“We’re not telling people to throw everything out and start from scratch,” Wons said. “There are an amazing number of options, and they can start with one thing and add layers.”

Funding and installing notification

There is money available for agencies that wish to begin upgrading their notification and emergency preparedness systems. Finding a knowledgeable installer is the next challenge. Some work goes to the vendors, but in many cases, counties and municipalities put installation work out to bid and count on the contractor to provide the integration and redundancy to ensure the system functions during an emergency.

More agencies can be expected to begin upgrading in the next few years. DHS recently awarded $2.6 billion to agencies for preparedness, which includes approximately $1.9 billion in Homeland Security grant funds for equipment as well as training, exercises and other measures designed to increase security levels across the United States. Almost $300 million was distributed in fire grants to fire departments and EMS organizations to enhance their response capabilities and to more effectively protect the health and safety of the public and emergency response personnel with respect to fire and other hazards. Of the funds awarded to state and local governments, almost $400 million was used to support state and local fusion centers—partnerships being organized across the country in which interagency efforts are focused on sharing emergency-related data with state and local governments.

But local governments are focusing not only on integrated technology. Other fire, safety and notification services and products are being installed. One easy addition is ExitPoint, a directional sounder with voice messaging provided by fire safety manufacturer System Sensor, St. Charles, Ill. ExitPoint plays a recorded alert message, which instructs building occupants what action they should take when approaching an ExitPoint device, such as “stairs up,” “stairs down,” “area of refuge” and “exit here.”

In between the voice instructions, ExitPoint’s integral audio amplifier produces a pulsating noise consisting of broadband low, mid and high sounds. According to System Sensor, the broadband noise makes it possible for those in the building to determine the location of the sound, even if they are unfamiliar with the building or if the exit signs are obscured by smoke. These four pulse patterns can be used to create an egress pathway out of a building and to mark perimeter exits.

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at

About the Author

Claire Swedberg

Freelance Writer
Claire Swedberg is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at .

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