COAction Helps Emergency Responders Weigh Their Options

August 2011
Topics: Emergency Preparedness and Response, Decision Support Systems, Collaborative Decision Making
When the heat is on, emergency responders make choices based on how resources fit the situation.
fireman fighting fire

Our first instinct when faced with making a decision is to amass as much information about the situation as we can. We feel that the more we know, the better the decision. Emergency response organizations call this collection of information situation awareness and invest a great deal of resources in achieving it.

However, Jill Drury, associate department head of MITRE's Multimedia and Collaboration Department, and MITRE senior principal scientist Gary L. Klein think organizations need to consider more than just the situational facts when making a decision. Klein and Drury are designing a process called Collaborative Option Awareness for Joint Actions, or COAction, to provide emergency responders with something beyond situation awareness.

In decision making, Drury says, situation awareness is not always enough. "Simply knowing the facts doesn't necessarily help you understand which option is best," she says.

Option Awareness

Instead of situation awareness, Klein and Drury want to provide emergency response organizations with option awareness. "We want to give organizations information on the relative value of their various options so they can pick the one that will work for the widest set of situations they might encounter," says Drury.


People normally review their options one at a time, mentally simulating outcomes, and stop when they find one that seems like it will work. But complex situations can overwhelm the mind's simulation abilities. With COAction, a computer manages the simulations, running through thousands of plausible scenarios. Then it visually presents the results so that people can compare all of their options at one time.

"This allows people to apply their more powerful visual pattern recognition processes rather than stress their weaker cognitive capability," says Klein. "COAction lets them literally see what would otherwise be obscured by uncertainty and complexity."

Take, for example, emergency personnel responding to a building fire on a crowded city block. Based on their training and equipment, the responders have a set of options available to them for containing the fire. Yet the value of each option can vary widely depending on the circumstances. Winds that threaten to spread the fire to neighboring buildings could place high value on options that involve a large number of fire trucks. But a steady downpour that slows the spread of the flames could place high value on options that require fewer fire trucks.

COAction models each available option for each plausible circumstance. Each option then appears as a range of "costs." Seeing all of the options together, you can choose the one that provides the best value for the circumstances at hand. Or, more effectively, you can limit your options to those that provide the greatest value across the widest range of circumstances.

Calculated Coordination

Creating an option awareness tool for individual decision makers was the COAction program's first goal. However, as the name Collaborative Option Awareness for Joint Actions suggests, the true benefit of COAction is to coordinate decisions among a number of participants. Multiply the number of organizations responding to an emergency and you also multiply the number of options and circumstances you must factor into command decisions. The COAction process simplifies joint decision making by modeling coordination options and ranking them in order of value.

For instance, in the example of the building fire, emergency responders dispatch police cars to cordon off and evacuate the threatened neighborhood. If too few police units arrive, the presence of panicked or disoriented civilians may hamper firefighting efforts. However, if too many police units arrive on the scene, then competition for working space and bogged-down communications could hinder the firefighters. COAction can help emergency dispatchers determine the resources to commit to the scene for a robust response.

A Clear View

As part of making COAction employable for joint operations, Drury and Klein have partnered with Indiana University to design a COAction testbed that multiple responders can use during experiments to assess and collaborate on decisions. The display has different sections that allow people to assess information about the situation, options for individual responders, and options for joint operations.

In the example of the building fire, the display might have a section showing information about the emergency: for example, whether flames or only smoke was visible, and whether there are people in the building. Two separate sections would provide assessments on the value of options available for fire personnel and for police personnel.

A fourth section would combine the assessment data from the two value sections to provide value assessments on options for joint actions between the fire and police departments. Future work calls for the joint assessments to automatically update as adjustments are made in the fire and police sections.

Up in the Air Decisions

For the next stage of the project, Drury and Klein are recruiting partners to test COAction under real conditions. An emergency healthcare coalition in Indiana has agreed to put the process through its paces this summer.

The team is also exploring COAction's value outside the realm of emergency response. "We are exploring the use of COAction for managing high-density air traffic departure and arrival management, for planning airborne surveillance, and for making decisions on bio-defense," says Klein.

Eventually, any organization in need of a tool to help them clearly visualize their range of options, allowing them to make decisions more quickly and with more confidence, may find that their best action is to employ COAction.

—by Christopher Lockheardt


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