Unified communications and collaboration technology are becoming increasingly important tools for improving emergency management, says Matt Jackson.
Since 9/11 the United States has put a heavy emphasis on emergency management at federal, state and local levels. Training standards and requirements have increased, agencies are expected to collaborate more closely using Emergency Operations Centers (EOC) as a central command and control hub, and continuity of government plans (COG) are now a central component of emergency operations plans (EOP).
Independent of the new requirements in emergency management, unified communications and collaboration technology have emerged as infrastructure priorities for government in general. When Gartner recently surveyed government CIOs regarding their top technology priorities for 2010, collaboration technologies and voice/data communications were in the top six. Although most agencies view collaboration between geographically dispersed offices to ensure rapid response, quality decision-making, and reduced travel costs, public safety and emergency management may benefit most of all from near life-like communications across distances.
With the persistent need for training across emergency response agencies, several key challenges occur - minimizing the length of time to roll out training to all staff, keeping consistency, and meeting response requirements in the midst of training sessions. Video conferencing is used by responders across the U.S. to simultaneously train multiple stations or offices at once instead of rotating classes through a central training center. It allows for interactive training where the trainer can get immediate feedback on student's level of comprehension, it enables students to ask questions, hear concerns from students at other sites, and can provide consistent training to the entire organization.
Another key benefit is that responders can quickly act from their home station instead of having increased response times due to being away at a central training center. When describing why they deployed video conferencing in Statetech Magazine, Snohomish Assistance Fire Chief Gary Aleshire said: "The driving force behind this is the national response time standards," referring to the National Fire Protection Association's requirement of an eight-minute response time for 90 percent of calls.
Field response coordination in the Emergency Operations Center is aided by the latest visualization tools, which provide GIS maps, weather, and structural diagrams. Video conferencing is another visualization tool increasingly used to allow the control center to see what is happening in the field and allow better coordination between responding agencies. In the field, cameras can be placed on a portable tower for a bird's-eye view or mobile video solutions can be worn by responders to allow subject matter experts in the EOC to have remote eyes and ears in the field to investigate and take appropriate action.
Coordination is essential when responding to natural or man-made disasters. "The compelling factor to invest in a video network for our agency was tying our regions even closer together," explains Ty Davisson, training and exercise specialist for the Springfield-Greene County OEM. "Emergency response is a collaborative effort; video conferencing enables multiple people, wherever they are, to come together on the same page. That's crucial in a disaster."
As travel budgets continue to get slashed due to tax revenue shortfalls, agencies are struggling with how to fulfil their mission while avoiding costly travel. Sometimes there is no substitute for "face-to-face" interaction. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that courts can no longer accept lab report certificates or affidavits without the examiner from the lab representing the report and be available for cross-examination. Video conferencing allows examiners to participate remotely and provides interactive, life-like testimony without the cost of travel and increasing a lab's already long backlog. Michigan State Police (MSP) Forensic Science Division forensic analysts delivered remote testimonies in two high-profile drunk driving trials in Delta County, located a full day's travel from Lansing. By testifying via videoconference, MSP estimates it saved 46 hours of analyst bench time, not to mention the travel costs from these two trials alone.
As emergency managers prepare for the next crisis, it's important to consider how to ensure responders are well trained and can effectively collaborate with the EOC and other agencies - all without breaking the budget.
Matt Jackson, Director of Global Government Markets, oversees solutions at Polycom for public safety, judicial and agency collaboration. Matt holds a B.S. degree in Computer Science from Virginia Tech, an M.B.A. from NC State University, and a graduate certificate from the University of Virginia.