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Improve emergency response by improving operational information flow
Shared situational awareness, interoperable communications and other features to look for in a PS-COMP
By Jinnie Chua, Assistant Editor of In Public Safety
When a large-scale incident like the Thomas Fire or Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting occurs, public safety agencies must coordinate with one another to take decisive action. While such incidents are only increasing in frequency and complexity, many agencies rely on inadequate methods of communication and information sharing.
“First responders are in the field using physical maps, incident command boards, sticky notes, and pens and paper. Sometimes they’ll have a different radio in each hand because agencies can’t communicate directly,” said Bob Pessemier, a technology solutions consultant for public safety agencies. “That’s just inefficient and stalls the whole response.”
From 2013 to 2017, Pessemier was the senior consultant on the Washington Common Operating Platform (WA-COP) project for the Seattle Police Department. The WA-COP is the public safety coordinated operations management platform (PS-COMP) used by agencies in the Seattle area including fire services, law enforcement, EMS, coast guard, and other relevant stakeholders.
A PS-COMP is essentially a foundation of applications that allows information to move fluidly and efficiently between different public safety players, and in today’s fast-paced world, there is a growing need for municipal regions and states to implement one.
Creating a shared platform for information sharing
Many agencies still use linear systems of communication where information moves up and down the chain of command. In rapidly unfolding situations, this can be problematic. “People make bad decisions if it takes too long to get information,” explained Pessemier. “Operational commanders need to talk to the right people, at the right time, with the right information.”
The software applications that make up a PS-COMP should address several specific needs associated with information flow including:
- Shared situational awareness.
- Interoperable communications.
- Shared incident command and control.
- Information sharing and collaboration.
- Regional cooperation on tasks and resources.
“Information flow is a multi-faceted problem, so if a software company says they do it all, do not believe them,” Pessemier warned. “It will take four or five different applications to really do this the right way.”
While there are several applications with the ability to facilitate and streamline the different elements of information flow, Pessemier emphasized the importance of choosing applications that can share data and information. “Think of it as a puzzle where every piece comes together and can talk to each other,” he said.
How agencies can prepare to implement a PS-COMP
Implementing a PS-COMP is a big undertaking and agencies must be prepared to commit time, energy, and resources to the project. They may also want to look at what grants are available for funding.
“They may decide they really only have the ability or resources to address a portion of operational information flow to begin with,” said Pessemier. If that’s the case, he recommends starting with the most critical piece of the puzzle and scaling up from there. For most agencies, that would be the need for shared incident command and control and interoperable communications.
Agency leadership, along with their internal IT and operational resources staff, will need to thoroughly research the different kinds of applications and solutions that software companies offer. Before making any selections, Pessemier recommends agencies request demonstrations to understand the capabilities of the products better.
“Different departments have different priorities and getting everyone to do it all at the same time is really difficult,” said Pessemier. “Before even looking at the technology, go to the different entities – regional public safety agencies, private sector organizations – and make sure everyone is willing to commit to it.”
Operational information flow affects response at every level
The need for solid operational information flow will only be more pressing as time goes on. “You have to address the issue in today’s day and age,” Pessemier said. “Agencies may need to talk to another agency tomorrow that they never thought they would.”
“From a terrorism perspective, it’s getting harder to anticipate what might happen, but if you have a platform of applications that will allow information to move, you can at least respond more effectively,” he said.
In addition to improving response to terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other complex large-scale incidents, Pessemier believes that a PS-COMP will have an important impact on everyday emergency calls such as a house fire. “With the right information, you aren’t putting firefighters’ lives at risk by sending them in where they don’t need to go,” he said.
“It’s public safety’s job to bring ordered energy to a disordered situation,” said Pessemier. “They can’t do that without operational information flow.”
About the author
Bob Pessemier is a former Kent Fire Department Lieutenant and Washington State Fire Academy instructor. He spent more than 20 years working in IT and is currently a technology solutions consultant for public safety agencies. Recently, he was the senior consultant for the Washington Common Operating Platform project managed by the Seattle Police Department and funded by DHS grants. Bob holds a Master of Arts in Emergency and Disaster Management from American Public University and an ITIL v3 certification. For questions related to PS-COMP, send an email to IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.