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Taking command of new communications technology

In a first-time collaboration, the California Mobile Command Center Rally teamed up with an academic center that focuses on mobile application domains

By Randall Larson

One of the most important lessons that was implicitly circulating around the 2011 California Mobile Command Center (MCC) Rally and Disaster Management Initiative (DMI) toward the end of May was that, beyond the more explicit partnership of public and private entities, education has an equally important responsibility in disaster preparation and management.

"Academia is a logical bridge," said Cal-EMA's Jim Aspinwall, Operations Chief for the Rally/DMI. "The public itself relies on access to knowledge to become equipped and eventually implement and introduce research into commerce and everyday life. Academia provides us with methods and processes that lead to implementation through private/corporate means to reach the public. This eventually leads to what works or what doesn't, and a desire to improve upon those aspects, which brings us back to academia."

Next-generation disaster management
Carnegie Mellon University–Silicon Valley is a West Coast offshoot of the prestigious private research university in Pittsburgh, established to expand the reach of CMU's professional programs and to perform research that connects it to local, national, and global high-tech companies.

CMU-SV director Martin Griss began conducting research on mobile application domains that he felt his institution could collaborate with; one of these was emergency services. "I realized that disaster management was potentially about to experience a big change due to mobile devices in the hands of the public as well as first responders, due to worldwide networks (the Internet) and the potential of crowd-sourcing, such as we found in Haiti after the earthquake."

In late 2009, Griss decided to create a research and outreach effort, the Disaster Management Initiative (DMI), to work in this area, and in March 2010 CMU-SV ran their first DMI workshop, a one-day event focusing on the role of new device, communication and collaboration technologies and approaches in disaster response and emergency services.

A real world example of the kind of interaction Griss describes was seen in the aftermath of the 9.0 earthquake and resultant tsunami in Japan last March. Jeannie Stamberger, associate director of the DMI, led a team to research the needs of the quake and tsunami victims and learned how essential Facebook and Twitter were in providing information in the disaster's aftermath. Their work helped bridge the gap between unstructured social media and structured data.

In a class at this year's combined MCC Rally/DMI, Stamberger also described how, during a catastrophic gas pipeline explosion in nearby San Bruno last year, Twitter feeds were used to recruit potential volunteers and FEMA managers were reviewing Tweets to evaluate real-time data about the incident.

"Academia plays an important intermediary role," said Griss. "In principle we are not biased and we can interact as a bridge with companies and agencies, researchers and practitioners on an equal footing. We can act as a flexible and innovative resource to help out in training, tool development and incident support, for example crisis camps, or deploying students to study an issue, process or tool, trying multiple alternatives. We also can use these interactions to train and inspire young researchers to make contributions."

Public/private partnerships exemplified
Palo Alto Police Department coordinator of homeland security and public outreach Kenneth Dueker found among the predominant themes at the MCC Rally/DMI "the need to move away from planning in silos (we need to recognize that we're all in this together), and the realization that major advancements (not just 'interoperability') in both technology and 'human networks' are required to achieve the objectives to link all potential resources, per the National Response Framework."

In addition, Dueker recognized the value of including academic resources like CMU in support of disaster management and recovery: "The National Disaster Resiliency Center (NDRC, one of the event's Gold Sponsors) and the CMU DMI are poised to provide a home for such efforts."

"For our company, the main value of the event was the ability to meet and exchange ideas and solutions with the acknowledged academic and practical experts in this field," said John Wray, chief technical officer for PC3 Solutions, a new firm specializing in emergency communications and disaster recovery. "As a former first responder and military communicator, I was impressed by the amount of planning, effort, and thought the vendors and represented agencies invested in the various communication solutions demonstrated in their comm vehicles."

Another corporate sponsor of the event and an ongoing supporter of the MCC Rally was Verizon. "During the workshop, we used our table display to demonstrate the resources and programs Verizon makes available to first responders," said Jim Hennessy, national account manager/public safety for Verizon Wireless. "The Verizon Crisis Response Team is usually rolling to a disaster before they are called."

Like a number of corporate support entities, the team is available to all emergency response agencies, including relief agencies such as the American Red Cross, providing essential wireless communications services free of charge.

"The workshops and 'plugfest' exercise demonstrated the need for increased interoperability and identified opportunities to fill some of the gaps that exist between the needs of first responders and the resources available in the private sector," said Hennessy.

Hennessy also noted that technology like Verizon's 4G LTE Broadband Network will enable new applications and improve existing services such as the Plugfest's live streaming video in order to enhance situational awareness.

Another corporate response team that participated in the event was Cisco, whose Network Emergency Response Vehicle (NERV) is a Type II self-deployable command and communications resource for first responders, critical infrastructure, and other entities that have been affected by a catastrophic event and require mission-critical networking to recover normal operations.

For the Rally, Cisco, along with the Naval Postgraduate School's Hastily Formed Networks Center in Monterey, participated in a data-sharing exercise between their NERV, using mesh wireless technology, and a private vehicle equipped with a Broadband Global Area Network satellite data terminal to enable secure communications between the two vehicles.

Continuing education
Attendees like Dueker are enthusiastic about the advantages of academic research and development of communications technology: "My personal objective is to see the creation of a local test bed for the Community Disaster Network."

Added George Gadd of the San Jose Police, "The sessions I attended were very interesting and I took some new knowledge away from each one I attended."

"Incredible ideas, amazing gadgets, interesting data points, and corporate social responsibility and bank accounts may indeed be valuable and essential overall, but we must also learn to train and manage them in the myriad, complex, and often dangerous environments they are being applied to," said Aspinwall. "To that, the DMI and MCC Rally of public safety personnel and resources is a significant and necessary partnership, challenge, and mission going forward."

About the author
Randall D. Larson retired after 25 years in public safety communications, most spent as a senior dispatcher and field communications director for the San Jose (Calif.) Fire Department. A former communications specialist on FEMA US&R Task Force 3 (CA-TF3) and a field communications trainer for the California Fire Chiefs Association and First Contact 9-1-1 LLC, Larson founded the California MCC Rally in 2009 and served as Plans Section Chief for the 2011 event. A frequent writer on public safety and other topics, Larson is also editor of 9-1-1magazine.com

Craig Allyn Rose provides photographic services to the San Jose, Santa Clara County and City of Santa Clara fire departments. His images also cover travel, sports, wildlife, urban landscapes, and aircraft and railroad subjects and have appeared in a wide variety of publications. See more of Craig's emergency services photography.

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