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FDNY tests out network command concept and Electronic Command Board

After years of development and testing, the ECB is in pilot testing

By Catherine Hartwell
The Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies

The roots of the Electronic Command Board being tested by the New York Fire Department can be traced back to FDNY’s experience on 9/11. Among the department’s adaptations following that disaster was the creation of its Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness. The center’s most ambitious project was an effort to update the department’s existing command technology.

After years of development and testing, the ECB is in pilot testing. Batt. Chief Neil Hintze, a 33-year FDNY veteran, is currently working with four FDNY battalions and two division commands in Manhattan on the testing.

Developed in partnership with Raytheon, the ECB promises to revolutionize scene accountability and transform of incident management.

The Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies (RaCERS) at John Jay College is particularly excited about this new device, because RaCERS’ main focus is based on studying large-scale events from a perspective of first responder coordination and its relationship to first responder safety.

In with the new
Currently, FDNY uses paper and a clipboard for initial alarms and expands to its “command board,” a magnetic white board, if an incident expands. This allows commanders to track units using magnets moved manually around the board, while noting milestones and other critical information.

The ECB is designed to capture all of this information, while simultaneously providing a time-stamped digital backup, to allow for reconstruction of incidents and real-time sharing of data, both among the commanders on scene and en route and with FDNY’s Operations Center, an agency-level operations center that coordinates high-level management of resources and responses and brings together data and video feeds from other agencies and news media.

The Electronic Command Board is intended to provide numerous advantages over the current system.

  1. It will enhance the incident commander’s decision-making, versus the current process of managing three to seven units on paper.
  2. The ECB will enhance firefighter accountability by letting the IC track the assigned location of each unit in real time.
  3. It facilitates transfer of command, because additional chief officers responding to an incident will have their boards synchronized with the evolving response and thus can see exactly what the current IC sees.
  4. It provides better situational awareness. Every unit at the scene with an ECB will have enhanced situational awareness, and all responding chiefs can see what the incident involves, enhancing their radio reports and visual assessments.

The Electronic Command Board operates in a straightforward way. The signal from the ECB on scene with a battalion chief goes to their vehicle and is then transmitted through the city’s broadband network or a commercial broadband wireless network.

The data goes directly to the FDOC, which can send messages and data, such as building plans, directly to the ECB at the scene. If the incident expands and more units respond, the ECB automatically updates the units assigned and shares this information with responding chiefs once they’re assigned to the alarm.

Figure 1: Shown here is a pre-designated high-rise template. Units can be dragged and dropped in the appropriate location.

For ease of use, icons mirror laptop operation. For example, an IC clicks on a paperclip icon to open up a floor plan, and a footprint or “bird’s-eye view” of the area opens up through aerial maps.

At a RaCERS seminar, Hintze demonstrated how an IC manages a situation during a high-rise fire. The engines are shown across the top of the board, and they change color when they arrive at the scene. Everyone with an ECB has simultaneous situational awareness as to the fire location and every unit’s location.

Bells, whistles and more
The ECB’s features have been driven by extensive user input.

  • Unit status is linked to the department’s dispatch system, and unit icons are automatically updated. Added units appear on the ECB when dispatched.
  • A series of pre-designated floor plans are included on the ECB. These include high-rise, single-family residential, multiple-unit residential of differing configurations and commercial properties. In addition, building floor plans can be easily modified, for example by adding stairways.
  • It’s simple to communicate changing conditions. If a chief in the building gets information about smoke conditions from a ladder company on the fire floor, the chief can indicate that situation on the board, which relays that status change to all the other chiefs responding to the incident.
  • Task assignments can be made rapidly. As additional units arrive, the IC can assign them necessary responsibilities and tasks at the touch of a button. If the IC needs more help, he can transmit an additional alarm, which would automatically populate those units along the top of the board.
  • Hazardous conditions can be marked to protect responders.
  • Updates regarding search units can be made in real time. A chief can indicate search status with primary (yellow) and secondary (green) indicators.
  • There are multiple checklists for events such as explosion, hazmat, building fire and other incident types. The board also provides event logs to help ensure that efforts are not duplicated. The log is also useful during a hotwash or after-action report.
  • The ECB is integrated with portable radio distress button features and can monitor an accountability check using radio identifiers, providing individual-level accountability.
  • Relief scheduling can be handled within the system. A chief can pull up information for different units to see how long they’ve been operating and to determine if they need to be relieved.
  • A user can take confidential on-scene notes using a stylus or keypad and a personal notepad built in with each board. These notes are private and only viewed by the user and can be easily put it to the side and brought back up when needed.
  • The boards are “firefighter resistant;" that is, they’re rugged, heat-resistant, air-cooled and the battery last eight to 12 hours. They’re also redundant, because if one is damaged or becomes inoperable, other chiefs and the FDOC have the incident information.

In summary, the ECB provides the ability to rapidly manage multiple units, monitor accountability and have real-time access to the location of critical resources and possible victims. Incident commanders will have a significantly improved situational awareness of their operations with this device, which can potentially improve overall response coordination and communication in any type of emergency.

Figure 2: The ECB is available in a small form factor that can be strapped to the arm and carried into a building.

[Ed.: For a quick summary of a New York Police Department initiative in using data-mining to enhance situational awareness, see this month’s Homeland Technoogy brief on “big data.”]

Catherine Hartwell was a graduate research assistant with The Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies (RaCERS) and recently completed her master’s degree in emergency management at John Jay College.