Paper Maps to Digital Apps: Improving Communications for First Responders

January 2013
Topics: Prevent Terrorism
Using concepts and technology originally developed for the military, MITRE is helping first responders communicate more effectively, even at the Academy Awards.
First responders increasingly rely on digital apps instead of paper maps.

Donald McGarry is not a runner, an actor, or a baseball player. Yet this year he attended the LA Marathon, the 84th Academy Awards ceremony, and the 2012 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, among other events. McGarry has also turned up at the NATO summit and the Democratic and Republican national conventions. It was all part of his work helping local public-safety officials learn to apply new technology and processes formerly reserved for the military.

Thanks to sophisticated smartphones, improved networks, and other new technology, civilian first responders now have the opportunity to transform their communications capabilities. Even better, they can share this information on systems that are what IT engineers call "platform agnostic"——meaning that no matter what computer operating system you use, the software will still work.

"It's taking the same business processes that were carried out manually—by using the telephone, pen and paper, or a face-to-face briefing—and automating them into an IT system in which they're getting much more timely and accurate information," says McGarry, a software systems engineer.

A MITRE team recently demonstrated its ability to deliver faster and better situational awareness in civilian environments by taking the company's technology to various large-scale events that require a federal law enforcement presence.

"We have the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies now understanding how they can use abstraction and data standards to improve information sharing and the accuracy of situational awareness and really move from paper and voice to digital," says John Kreger, chief systems engineer in the MITRE-operated Homeland Security Systems Engineering and Development Institute (HSSEDI™).

Emergency Data Exchange Language

MITRE bases this new situational awareness technology on the Emergency Data Exchange Language (EDXL), a family of data standards. One of the standards, the Distribution Element (DE), allows for exchange of any type of data among disparate systems. The use of the DE allows for routing and exchange of message data in a model similar to IP packet routing.

Recognizing potential applications for the civilian first responder community, McGarry (who has been a practicing paramedic in New York State for 11 years) proposed an internally funded research project called Incident Command Net (IC.NET) for First Responder Collaboration and Integration.

The goal of the research was to use existing first responder systems to share information that local officials——even those with limited IT capabilities——can use and adapt easily to changing conditions. In effect, this creates a link between responders in the field and those in a command center who direct security operations at a large event.

Among other measures, MITRE researchers applied EDXL to standardizing the information first responders share. The standards came about through several brainstorming sessions between MITRE researchers and local emergency response groups. Next, the research team developed open-source tools and libraries to encourage local governments to use and adopt the new information-sharing standards. In one 12-month period, the software was downloaded over 2,700 times.

This research led McGarry to pursue another research project known as Command & Control Cloud in a Box (C3IB). This project involved a plan for setting up a fully operational command post that could provide responders with full situational awareness and command and control capability within four hours of its deployment. The new capabilities that resulted from this project complemented McGarry's earlier work and prompted his team to take their work into the field.

From Magnets on Paper to Digital Tracking

Last March a five-person MITRE team went to Los Angeles to test their research at the LA Marathon. The race starts in the parking lot at Dodger Stadium and winds 26.2 miles through Los Angeles neighborhoods until runners cross the finish line in Santa Monica at the intersection of Ocean and California Avenues. In addition to 30,000 runners, the event attracts thousands of spectators.

The year before, a MITRE team had watched local officials move magnets on a paper map to track their vehicles. For the 2012 race, the MITRE team developed a tracking capability for emergency service vehicles. The team also developed smartphone apps for iOS and Android to track emergency service personnel. Prior to the race, the team deployed the tracking capabilities so that local police, firefighters, transit officials, and public health personnel could see vehicle and personnel locations on various geographic information system (GIS) displays.

"The paper map was still there, but as the event started, there was much less attention paid to the map and much more paid to the display of the data we were sharing," says McGarry. "The information was much timelier, much more accurate, and required a lot less work because these machines are out reporting these positions. They don't have to rely on this manual process, risk missing radio messages coming in and maybe not moving the magnet."

The LA Marathon was all part of a series of technical demonstrations at various events around the country. In February, McGarry and his team went to Hollywood for the Academy Awards ceremony. In May, the team traveled to Chicago for the NATO Summit. In July, they were in Kansas City for the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. The team went to Tampa in August for the Republican convention, and turned up again the following month when the Democrats convened in Charlotte, N.C.

Kreger believes that all the hard work paid off. "We've demonstrated an enterprise solution at different events that we are confident will work because of our DoD experience," he says.

"An Model" for First Response

But in some ways, the military-civilian parallel is inexact. In the military, communications equipment must follow standards set from the top by the Department of Defense. But there are approximately 89,500 police and fire districts across the United States, and no entity with DoD-like authority to make them buy equipment that's interoperable with those other cities or states use. Without such a mandate, how could MITRE improve the way state and local officials coordinate their responses to major events?

Rather than imposing a Washington-based widget or tool on the rest of the country, however, Kreger and McGarry say they've developed a capability that local officials can customize themselves.

It's a view shared by many of the first responders who worked with MITRE on the new standards. In its January 2012 newsletter, the Regional Catastrophic Planning Team (RCPT), an organization of public safety officials in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, wrote: "[MITRE] came to the RCPT with a question: 'What do you need?' Even more important, they listened to what our members had to say. With limited resources they've begun to take pieces of our vision and build them into functioning tools and real working proofs of concept that we can share with the whole nation."

In the coming months, McGarry and his team expect to continue collaborating with first responders as they work to improve the technology. Based on the initial feedback, an enormous potential exists for providing new benefits to the first responder community. "This is like moving from a mail-order catalogue system to an model," says McGarry.

——by Russell Woolard


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