Q&A: Inside the IAFC’s National Mutual Aid System

Key players explain the hallmarks of the new system – and why simplicity is key


Mutual aid is critical to fire and emergency service departments across the country.  Officials in these agencies rely on neighboring departments, communities and even states to provide aid when needed, for everything from a structure fire to a large-scale disaster. Mutual aid occurs thousands of times a day across the nation. The key is having a system that departments can use every day to call for such help in an efficient and effective manner.

The IAFC’s National Mutual Aid System (NMAS) is the evolution of the Intrastate Mutual Aid System (IMAS, 2006-2011) and Mutual Aid Net (2012 to date). The system is powered by Esri’s ArcGIS and Juvare's WebEOC.

Fire Chief connected with members of the NMAS team – Jeff Dulin, strategic adviser at the IAFC; Patrick Lane, vice president of professional services at Juvare; and Mike Cox, director of fire & EMS solutions with Esri – to learn more about NMAS and its potential impact the future of fire service mutual aid.

Pictured left to right: Jeff Dulin, strategic adviser at the IAFC; Mike Cox, director of fire & EMS solutions with Esri; and Patrick Lane, vice president of professional services at Juvare.
Pictured left to right: Jeff Dulin, strategic adviser at the IAFC; Mike Cox, director of fire & EMS solutions with Esri; and Patrick Lane, vice president of professional services at Juvare.

Fire Chief: What is the origin of NMAS?

Dulin: Following Hurricane Katrina, the IAFC was asked to move resources around the Southeast to support Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. In trying to get resources down there, we realized that a lot of states didn’t have good intrastate mutual-aid resource systems, nor did they have a good capability of cataloging those resources. And so the IAFC, working with FEMA and the national integration center,  started a project called the Intrastate Mutual Aid System, where we helped states inventory their resources, and then help them bolster their mutual-aid systems in preparation for another Katrina-like event. From that, the Mutual Aid Net system was developed, and 18 states participated. It was basically a super hyped-up Excel spreadsheet system that was used by states to inventory their resources.

Then about 2 years ago, we started looking at the system and decided that it needed to be updated with newer technologies. We wanted to add a geospatial component to where those resources lived and breathed every day, so you get a better perspective of where resources are and how close they are to an incident. We started looking at different systems that were out there that would support this type of technology, and from that, we started engagement with Esri ArcGIS and Juvare’s WebEOC.

The IAFC has been the leadership organization for the fire and emergency community since 1873. WebEOC is the premier crisis management software across the United States, and Esri is the leader in geospatial data collection and mapping in the world. We want to get the best of the best of the best, so we put these three entities together to look at how would we build a new mutual-aid system that took resource management to the next level. We have been working for about the last 18 months on this project, and have gone through several iterations of it with updates to make it the best that we can. The advantage that these two technology companies bring to the NMAS table is they can share and connect data to any other system out there. Part of NMAS is to be able to share the real-time information on resources or the situation to whomever needs it.

Fire Chief: What were the next steps in getting the project off the ground?

Dulin: We had five partner states that helped us with requirements-gathering, and from that we selected three of those states that really had a lot of mutual-aid background and responses over the last several years. Those experts helped us look at what are the components that you need to know prior to an event, where are the resources, and how quickly you can get those resources.

From there, we have evolved NMAS, looking at it from a perspective of not only the inventory, the resources, but also planning for mutual aid, looking for resources around you and deciding what would be the appropriate resources you would need for different types of events. Taking that through the actual creation of an event, the requesting of the closest and most appropriate resources, and then after that, tracking those resources once they are deployed using field tools that will help you communicate with those resources, track them, route them, and then give them the opportunity to feed data back to you in real time to be able to assess the situation they're going into.

Some of these things that we're talking about in the field, we have actually been testing over the last two years with Esri’s Survey123 tool. During hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017 and then hurricanes Florence and Michael in 2018, we actually deployed this tool and were able to collect real-time data and track the resources. Even though we didn’t dispatch the units through NMAS, we were able to provide deployed resources with our tool and bring that data they collected back in real time through the NMAS system and show decision-makers real-time data exchange from the field to then make real-time decisions.

During Hurricanes Harvey, the NMAS tool was deployed and the team was able to collect real-time data and track the resources. (Photo/NMAS)
During Hurricanes Harvey, the NMAS tool was deployed and the team was able to collect real-time data and track the resources. (Photo/NMAS)

Fire Chief: What was the experience like using a Beta version of NMAS with those hurricanes?

Dulin: In Hurricane Florence, we collected about 18,000 data points across North Carolina and South Carolina, and in Hurricane Michael, we collected about 51,000 data points in Florida and Georgia. It really showed to us a proof of concept that, yes, this will work and this is something that we need to do as part of the mutual-aid system. It expands our view about mutual aid. It is not just asking for people to come to help you; it’s about all the other technology we can bring to support them while they’re on that mission itself, like tracking and data collection about what they are doing.

Fire Chief: What’s the current status of NMAS

Lane: The NMAS system is in production, and we have our first three states that have subscribed –Virginia, Tennessee and South Carolina. They are all in the process of going through the initial implementation process and loading up all of their inventory resources into NMAS. And we anticipate that as the year progresses, they will actually put it into active use in receiving and rendering actual aide. We have several other states that are in the process and should be on-boarding shortly.

Fire Chief: What is the process for getting additional states on board?

Lane: It’s a statewide subscription and so the most efficient way to do this is for an entire state to subscribe because mutual aid does not make much sense if just one fire station or one county subscribes. You really have to get geographically close entities together. It could be that a variety of entities needs to sponsor and pay for the NMAS subscriptions fee, and when they do, all of the emergency services participants in the state have access to NMAS.

Fire Chief: When do you anticipate having most states on board?

Lane: Certainly, we hope we will have 10 states by the end of this year and then continue to add more of the states in 2020. Not every state is going to subscribe, but we expect broad participation from regions that are affected by more disasters, and it certainly was reflected in the number of states that participated in the build of the system requirements-gathering. We get inquires from states every week, especially this summer from all the events in the Midwest. It’s definitely a snowball effect. Mutual aid is most effective the more people that opt-in, and we are optimistic that this is going to be a big difference-maker in multiple regions in the United States.

Fire Chief: Can you share more about the technical elements that Juvare and Esri bring to the table in NMAS?

Cox: Esri adds that geospatial context to that system. In other words, you will be able to locate that closest available resource and route that resource to the incident. Those that have requested it will be able to see the resource moving, and those that deploy that resource will also be able to keep track of the status. In future phases, we are going to add real-time data collection so that we can collect data that is then communicated to a command post or emergency operation center (EOC) in seconds.

Lane: Juvare’s origins trace back to the origins of electronic systems of health management emergencies, so we’ve always been about a process-centric workflow software solution that helps people make decisions in that heat of the moment. It’s back in that simplicity model and that is what we seek to deliver as part of WebEOC. It is the benchmark and the standard for incident command systems anywhere in the U.S. and most places of the world. When people need to make decisions in a crisis, WebEOC Is there.

Fire Chief: What sets NMAS apart from other systems that are out there?

Lane: We are really aggregating three points of excellence in how mutual aid is delivered. Of course, we start with the fire chiefs and who they represent, which is the largest aggregation of a mutual-aid experience probably anywhere in the world. We start with their expertise and we invested probably over 1,000 hours in discussions with various experts to help understand the workflows and the requirements that were necessary to advance mutual aid. But then we combined that with Esri, which has world-class geospatial technology. It is very important for mutual aid to understand where the resources are located. The visual element has not really been the key aspect of predecessor systems. And last but not least, we have over two decades of emergency management expertise coming from the Juvare side. Whatever you see is deployed nationwide, everywhere from FEMA to almost all of the states utilizing WebEOC. You take that kind of three-part harmony and bring it together in what really is a super solution that has no pair out there. That is one of the really awesome things about it.

And the other thing that was a significant challenge is we avoided too much complexity in the system because that has always been the enemy of this. For people who are making mutual-aid decisions, in the heat of the moment, complexity is the enemy of efficacy, and NMAS is designed to bring as much simplicity to that decision-making process as possible. We want to get the right resource to the right place at the right time, saving time, saving lives, saving property.

Fire Chief: How does this system connect to the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and different ways that responders are already connecting?

Cox: We are not replacing a national aid system like EMAC. We are not replacing statewide mutual-aid policies that are in place.  We are adding to those capabilities but creating a way for those needing resources to quickly search for available resources through technology, not phone calls. We are making those resources visible for deployment in a much easier fashion, following whichever process that requester needs to follow. NMAS is looking to work with and partner with Emergency management Assistance Compact for interstate mutual aid and support their system, which states use for large-scale mutual-aid governance. We see NMAS as an accompanying technology to assist states using the EMAC process to target requests to the closet most appropriate resources out there. I want to make sure that it’s understood that we are not competing, but rather building additional efficiencies that can couple into those national and statewide programs.

Of course, NMAS aligns with NIMS and the national response framework to ensure that we type all of the resources in that federally recognized program. When you request a Type 1 engine in NMAS, you are going to get a nationally recognized resource with nationally recognized capabilities for any type of resource. We use the Resource Typing Library Tool RTLT as our typing engine for accomplishing this.

Following EMACs Mission Ready Package MRPs program, a state can also add those resources into their inventory, and also have the ability and the flexibility to place resources that are not NIMS-typed into the catalogue. So if you have a specialized resource with specialized capabilities, you can add that to the system so that it can be discovered by somebody that is in need of that capability and request it with NMAS.

The NMAS Incident Command Dashboard shows resource locations. (Photo/NMAS)
The NMAS Incident Command Dashboard shows resource locations. (Photo/NMAS)

Fire Chief: How scalable is NMAS?

Lane: It is perfectly scalable. Anything from large incidents like hurricanes to local fires that overwhelm a community’s resources.

Cox: It is scalable for day-to-day operations or that significant event or even planned events. If you have a special event in the future, you could use NMAs to basically reserve the resources in advanced from your partners in your region. It’s important to realize this is all-hazards. It is not just fire and EMS-based. It can be law enforcement, public health, public utilities, electrical companies, private partners that help restoration after an event. It can be applied in a variety of manners.

Fire Chief: What are some of the hallmark features of NMAS?

Dulin: One of the components of NMAS is instant messaging and email system between the requestor and the resource owner. There are no more phone calls being made. The system instantaneously sends a message from a requestor to a resource owner, and you get instant notification so there is no downtime between the process of having to look up a number, having to call that person, the phone being busy, or them not being in that office. The messages go directly to one or a 100 people that are associated with that resource to get an instant response about the availability of that resource and the availability of that resource to respond to your needs.

Lane: On a bigger picture, there is a three-part hallmark to NMAS: It’s request, locate, and deploy. In each one of those key parts of the process of mutual aid, we are offering something that is either better or never before exposed to the participants of the mutual-aid process. All of this information is packaged in a way that is intuitive and clear and that is more than a me-too part of this. It’s an essential part of the value add of NMAS to the science of mutual aid. The requesting process is ever so much easier than any call tree that exists these days or manual, email-driven process. The location back to the mapping is ever so much easier to understand where the assets that you requested are. And the deployment is in many cases at the press of the button is what is required to make it. It’s about streamlining, it’s about new capabilities, and it’s about bringing an easy button to a mutual aid.

Dulin: I think one of the things I try to emphasize when we talk about NMAS is that people don’t think about mutual aid until you’re the one that needs it. A lot of times people think about mutual aid as they’re the ones who are going to provide mutual aid. But when you are the jurisdiction or community that is under siege of a wildfire or underwater from a flood, you do not have time to go through a lot of steps to find out who is available to get the help you need when you need it. What we have tried to do with NMAS is build the system very simple – three clicks to get to request, to locate, and deploy those resources as quickly as possible. So when we look at NMAS and we do the demonstrations and people say, “well this is pretty simple,” that’s what we want. We want it to be easy. We want it to be not cumbersome at all, so that when you have that issue and your hair is on fire, you get the people that you need as quickly as you need them.

To learn more about NMAS, visit the IAFC NMAS page.

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