When a serious incident occurs, how do emergency centers respond? What are the first actions they take?

Most follow guidelines based on the Federal Emergency Management Agency's National Incident Management System (NIMS). But even for a small-scale incident, dozens, if not hundreds, of people need to be mobilized immediately. How can all these people be reached quickly? Once notified, how do they communicate? For instance, how do the first responders speak directly with all the safety and security personnel who are already at the incident? What if they don't all have radios? What happens when a key official cannot be reached immediately?

Fortunately, the emergence of policy-based communications can help improve public-safety response when seconds and minutes count. Policy-based communications automate the standard operating procedures outlined in previously prepared plans, vastly speeding communication, collaboration and response. Hundreds, even thousands, of individual communications actions can be taken on first notice of an incident — and with just one incident management application. All relevant communications resources are applied in an interoperable manner, and relevant parties are notified immediately by the communications system, thereby allowing resources to be marshaled in the shortest possible time. In the end, a policy-based response lets first responders effectively implement the three Cs of NIMS: command, control and communication.

Most important, policy-based communications do not take the power of judgment out of the hands of incident commanders or other personnel on the ground, instead giving them the opportunity to respond faster and more consistently, proficiently and comprehensively. This technology can help improve public safety's effectiveness, response times and service.

Responders who work in public-safety answering points (PSAPs) and emergency management offices realize that current systems could be more robust to follow the NIMS guidelines for notification, response, assessment, staging and resource deployment. Consequently, they tend to share the following goals for how to improve their emergency response systems:

  1. Integration of interoperability and notification

    Historically, most emergencies have fallen into one of three big buckets: police, fire or medical. Today, this situation has changed radically, as most jurisdictions have experienced tremendous increases in the types of emergencies they handle, the jurisdictions involved, and numbers and types of emergency personnel engaged. Emergency personnel want rapid notification of, and cross-communication among, the numerous first responders, public-safety workers and jurisdictions.

  2. More distributed command and control

    Most emergency management offices today are highly centralized. Authorized personnel can take actions and issue orders only from a certain location, such as a dispatch center, and only from certain devices, such as their consoles. This centralization can create problems if the dispatch or emergency center stops working for any reason. Moreover, it's quite possible that during a serious crisis the emergency coordinator with the greatest authority and expertise will not be on site or will be overwhelmed by the amount of radio traffic generated by first responders involved in the incident response.

    Dispatch and incident management personnel also can be limited in their ability to quickly expand or replicate more consoles; distribute communications responsibilities; and provide management across multiple incident management organizations, PSAPs or first-responder locations. Emergency operations could benefit tremendously by wider distribution of command-and-control capabilities.

  3. Greater flexibility in applying procedures

    The number and range of potential emergencies have never been greater. Emergency personnel cannot possibly create standard operating procedures for every potential scenario. Therefore, they require a system that allows them to implement procedures quickly and dynamically, even if they haven't created procedures for that exact emergency. Of course, these procedures always need to be flexible enough to allow commanders and coordinators to override, add to, or otherwise change standard procedures.

A policy-based approach to emergency communications addresses all of these critical needs and helps emergency organizations fulfill their NIMS requirements.

At the core of this approach is a public-safety communication interoperability platform that supports a policy engine based on Internet Protocol (IP). The policy engine lets first responders input their standard operating procedures for various scenarios (i.e., their policies), which can be automated during an emergency response. The many steps that need to be taken during emergencies are scripted into a set of rules that are then activated by a single click of a mouse. When a crisis hits, a preset emergency communications plan is put into action with the touch of a button. Meanwhile, the emergency manager retains complete control and authority. For instance, he or she can call in other teams and individuals or issue specific instructions, as needed, beyond the steps outlined in the standard operating procedure. These are instantly communicated to all relevant personnel.

The policy engine permits instant, automated notification of all participants. It can be activated from anywhere, via a computer or phone, to immediately construct dynamic teams composed of radio users, computer users and wireline or wireless phone users based on the unique demands of a given situation. This approach eliminates the need to call dozens and dozens of people or to trust a series of phone trees. If a person cannot be reached at a primary number, the system will automatically try all other available means of contact. And as users respond, they can be placed automatically into a collaborative talkgroup or conference. A complete emergency response can be assembled in seconds.

An IP-based network supports all the functionality of the application, permitting systemwide integration and additional critical functionality. Notably, it supports all IP-enabled end-user devices, including mobile radios (both UHF and VHF), wireline phones, wireless phones, computers and handheld devices, so all participants on the network can collaborate in real time. It also allows a dispatcher, coordinator or other authorized person to take charge of the incident from almost anywhere — not just from a console at the emergency operations center.

With a policy engine in place, first responders can take action much more quickly and comprehensively than in the past.

Imagine that an airplane is having problems with its landing gear. Today, most dispatchers, on learning of the incident, would initiate a series of actions. Alerts may be sent to the fire department, the paramedic squad, the police and the nearest hospital. Nearby fire departments also may be called to provide mutual aid. Airline mechanics, pilots skilled in emergency landings and even representatives of the aircraft manufacturer may be asked to stand by. If terrorism is suspected, many other calls will have to be made. These actions all chew up valuable time, and juggling them can be very challenging.

With a policy-based emergency response, all of these notifications are sent with a click of a mouse. Various response teams are dispatched automatically. Backups form immediately. Over the IP-based network, the airport manager can be connected to the specific tactical or operational radio channel to communicate instantly with the fire chief and other relevant authorities. Meanwhile, the incident commander retains complete control of the emergency from any location. All of these actions occur in seconds.

First responders also can use a policy engine to enhance very specific capabilities. For example, the engine can activate “pop groups” — ad hoc groups that need to be aware of a certain process or emergency immediately. In Boulder County, Colo., a policy engine is used to support SWAT team operations. During the day, team members conduct training exercises and engage in other critical work-related activities. When an emergency occurs, a lead user or user group activates the entire SWAT team with the push of a button. The team instantly becomes aware that it's needed, where it's needed, and for exactly what purpose.

In an emergency, a rapid response is vital. A policy-based approach using IP technology allows much of the planning to be done before an incident occurs. A series of simple clicks then launches the automated elements of the plan. This method permits rapid action employing available resources, and it allows other resources and modes of information to be added in the future. It combines the best of automation with the best of human judgment, ensuring the fastest, most accurate public-safety response.

Marthin DeBeer, is senior vice president and general manager for Cisco Systems' Emerging Technology Group.