Turn Off the Radio: MITRE Designs New Communication Tools for First Responders

December 2010
Topics: Radio Communications, Emergency Preparedness and Response, Emergency Management
At Operation Golden Phoenix, an exercise that simulated the detonation of a small nuclear device, MITRE tested tools and standards to help first responders communicate better.

"Before I started my career at MITRE, I worked on an ambulance crew in upstate New York," says systems sensor engineer Donald McGarry, beginning his oft-told tale. "One cold fall morning we got a call about a motor vehicle collision at the bridge on the interstate highway. We jumped in the ambulance and were the first unit on the scene. It had rained the night before, which we only remembered when we hit the ice sheet that covered the bridge and gently careened the ambulance into the barrier.

"So I picked up the radio and warned dispatch not to send any more units onto the bridge. But my message needed to be relayed over the radio to each separate unit because the dispatch systems for county fire and city fire and county police and city police didn't work with each other. Needless to say, the message was slow getting out and in the next 10 minutes an additional eight emergency vehicles had joined us—crunched against the bridge barrier."

McGarry first told that story at MITRE when he proposed that the company develop a blueprint for applying data standards that would allow first responders to communicate across different information systems. His team had the chance to test those tools and standards this summer outside Los Angeles during Operation Golden Phoenix, an emergency response exercise that simulated the detonation of an improvised nuclear device at the Universal City Metrolink station in Burbank, California.

A Game of Telephone

Dispatchers are responsible for directing the units and resources their agencies control to the site of emergencies. When multiple agencies respond to an emergency, the various dispatchers have trouble coordinating the combined units and resources because their message systems don't communicate with one another. With dispatchers talking over the radio to their units while also communicating with one another, usually over the phone, information becomes lost or garbled. "You lose a certain degree of precision without machine-to-machine interaction," says McGarry. "It becomes a game of telephone."

Additionally, a dispatcher's attention is a limited resource. The time a dispatcher spends relaying information is time not spent monitoring and responding to the emergency at hand. "So not only do they lose the four or five minutes that they're on the phone, they're now four or five minutes behind on what has just happened on this call."

Firefighting Tools

For Operation Golden Phoenix—sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security with participation from Los Angeles firefighters, hazardous material units, law enforcement, public health departments, and emergency managers—Don McGarry and his team deployed a prototype message router, Incident Command Net for First Responder Collaboration and Integration. IC.NET provides agencies a common platform on which to share information. "Once we got the prototype working in the lab, we knew that we had to take it into the field to test it on existing systems using real data under authentic conditions."

Two weeks before the start of Operation Golden Phoenix, the MITRE team jetted to Los Angeles to install the prototype message router on the city fire department's computer-aided dispatch system. We also collaborated with vendors that designed additional capabilities for the system, such as automatic vehicle location and hospital availability information. The team succeeded in getting the system and all its components to operate using the MITRE-designed architecture in time for the exercise.

"Our goal," says McGarry, "is to give response agencies control over their own data but also allow them to share it with others. We also want to allow them to connect to and disconnect from data sources and command-and-control tools on the fly without interrupting any of the other services on the platform."

He then explains more about the specific tools MITRE has designed to use with the system. "These tools let dispatchers visualize units and resources responding to incidents in the field without having to fall back on using the radio for command and control."

Wonderful Widgets

Meanwhile, another MITRE team—led by software application development engineer Kelly Gerschefske—tested out new tools with the Los Angeles Fire Department Dispatch Center. Gerschefske's tools are small Web-based applications that provide first responders with visual tools for viewing and managing data. Called Warfighter Widgets, these tools were originally designed to provide soldiers with the agility to rapidly respond to changing mission needs.

Gerschefske knew the dispatchers would welcome the tools when she saw them racing to a computer to perform a Google search when vital information to contain a forest fire was unavailable on the dispatcher system. "Afterwards," says Gerschefske, "I explained that Warfighter Widgets would allow responders and dispatchers to access Google, as well as other Web services like Twitter and Flickr, right from the dispatch system."

Using Warfighter Widgets, dispatchers can access multiple data streams simply by pointing and clicking. Users can group, filter, and create data, and then easily share that data across the system through chat messages. "Warfighter Widgets is a useful complement to Don's messaging system," explains Gerschefske. "Emergency response data and tasking are not easy to visualize or manipulate, so the widgets give responders the tools to do so."

Participants at Operation Golden Phoenix reacted positively to the new tools MITRE provided. They were excited about the increase in the amount of data available to them and the ease with which they could manage it. They also appreciated that data displays and feeds could be customized to suit the role of the user.

Both McGarry and Gerschefske's teams are part of the Composable Capability on Demand investment area of the MITRE Innovation Program. Having proved the effectiveness of their new tools, the next step for these teams is to develop systems, standards, and partnerships that will allow them to deliver the tools to the agencies that need them.

View from the Bridge

And how would McGarry have used MITRE's tools that morning on the icy bridge? "Once we ended up on the barrier, I could have typed a message into the ambulance terminal warning of the ice on the bridge. That message would be logged onto the dispatcher's call for units. As the call for units—composed in a standardized format—traveled across the dispatch systems of the various response agencies, my warning would tag along with it.

"Meanwhile, the command staff would be able to track in real-time all of the responding vehicles. Knowing the vehicles couldn't safely cross the bridge, they could send half of them to the southbound end of the bridge to attend to victims there and the other half to the northbound end.

"In addition, information about the victims could be sent digitally to local hospitals so that hospital staff could help command staff direct ambulances to the best hospital for each patient. And those hospitals would be able to prepare for incoming patients by seeing what treatment they received from emergency medical services. All without having to talk once over the radio—regaining crucial, life-saving time."

—by Christopher Lockheardt


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