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Using real-time maps to stage and deploy personnel

Understanding data interoperability and how incident management software can help coordinate response efforts


When the next big emergency or disaster occurs, will your department once again see its ICs and their staffs reaching for those manual systems – or will they be reaching for their wireless devices?


The first questions responders ask when a disaster occurs: Where is it? Where are the victims? Where are the hazards? Where are the resources? The first request from an incident commander (IC) is often for a map – and the need is immediate.

Too often, even in our technologically advanced society, the tools that the IC and their staff reach for to get those answers are paper maps, whiteboards, push-pin boards and other manual systems. And the biggest downfall of those systems is that personnel spend an inordinate amount of upfront time just collecting data to process before they can even answer any of the questions. Meanwhile, the emergency doesn’t wait.

Unlocking the information

One of the biggest challenges in responding to large-scale disasters is getting accurate mapping and sharing that information with multiple agencies, dispatch and responding units. Software solutions that enable fire chiefs and ICs to pinpoint and share hazards and response obstructions, like downed trees, power lines and road closures, allow efficient crew deployment and staging. That’s the good news.

The not-so-good-news is that much of data is locked away in informational “silos” (e.g., the databases and information management systems maintained by various organizations). According to the National Research Council’s “Successful Response Starts with a Map,” government agencies are keepers of large volumes of data, most of which are held by state or local agencies. However, additional key layers, such as critical infrastructure data, are maintained by the private sector.

Emergency managers also need property records, street centerlines, floodplain delineations and other data that are maintained by the public sector. Depending upon the scope and magnitude of an emergency incident, it is vital for emergency managers and ICs to have access to all sources of available data.

And although much of the data needed by emergency managers has already been developed by other organizations for other purposes, various issues and challenges prevent easy access to or use of this data for emergency management. One the biggest challenges is data interoperability.

Keys to data interoperability

As defined in “Successful Response Starts with a Map,” “interoperability is about the ability of two or more systems to share data and tools effectively and seamlessly, independent of location, data models, technology platform, terminologies and so forth.” And while there are many challenges to achieving true interoperability, it is useful to understand the technical, semantic and data quality aspects of interoperability, as explained by the National Research Council.

1. Technical: The National Research Council explains this element as “the ‘nuts and bolts’ of software and hardware interoperability, where the work of standards promulgating organizations can best be leveraged. Technical interoperability is typically achieved by selecting and implementing the appropriate software and internet standards, common content encodings for transmission, and so forth.”

2. Semantic: Every agency that produces and uses data typically has their own processes and methods for encoding geospatial data. They also are likely to have several classification schemes, vocabularies, terms and data definitions that are peculiar to their system. So, when organizations look to share geospatial information, whether those requests are proactive (preplanning) or reactive (emergency response), it is those technology semantics that can make it particularly challenging to process requests.

For fire departments and other emergency response and management organizations seeking to integrate geospatial data, the National Research Council notes that “it is vitally important that there is agreement on the proper definition and use of metadata. In principle, proper metadata can provide the foundation for semantic interoperability by defining the meaning of each of the terms that underlie the data production process.”

3. Data quality: Experience has shown that an accurate and up-to-date framework and foundation data is essential to successful response and recovery. One positive aspect is that most of such data is located at the local government level or with the private sector. Local governments, whose public safety agencies and organizations are usually the first responders to emergencies, are often the most familiar with this type of data.

Real-time mapping and data solutions

During an emergency incident, the use of the same framework and foundation data by responders in various parts of the country is vital for coordination. While many municipalities and states have vigorously pursued the gathering and improvement of data needed to respond to emergencies, many others have not.

But all is not lost. Incident management software and applications are making it easier than ever to coordinate and organize data from multiple agencies both in the planning and response phases. When looking for such a solution for your locality, consider these four questions:

1. Is the system cloud-based? A cloud-based system allows your department access to its account and incident information from any device (e.g., notebook PC, tablets, smartphones) anywhere. It should also enable users in different areas to view command board updates in near real-time. And the system you choose must be compatible with the operating systems used by your devices (e.g., Mac, Windows, iOS, Android OS).

2. How is the system secured? Look for system that operates within a state-of-the-art, redundant, server environment with automatic failover – the process of automatically moving an application to a standby server during a failure or service event to preserve its uptime. Automatic failover for disaster recovery is an option for organizations that need a zero-downtime environment.

3. Is the system interface ready? The whole idea is to bring different sources of data together for the common good, right? Will the system integrate with your department’s legacy information systems, like computer-aided dispatch (CAD), records management, preplanning and scheduling?

4. Is the system customizable? Will your personnel be able to participate in customizing sessions prior to implementation and going forward?

When disaster strikes …

So, when the next big emergency or disaster occurs, will your department once again see its ICs and their staffs reaching for those manual systems – or will they be reaching for their wireless devices?

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.