Here in Washington State, the I-5 corridor is the only major north-south route between Seattle and Oregon and south to California. Recently, a four-car accident tied up traffic for 15 hours, and 17 different agencies were involved to clean up the mess. Fortunately, there were no fatalities in this accident, but the time lost and inconvenience to the public, because the agencies were unable to easily talk with each other, was immense.
This is just one instance of a garden-variety crisis. The Port of Seattle, and by extension the Puget Sound region and the State of Washington with its geographic diversity, face an infinitely more complex situation when a crisis hits. Just within the Puget Sound region there are over 20 different local, regional, state, and federal agencies plus hundreds of individual groups that routinely get called when there is a crisis, be it a warehouse fire on the docks, a problem with an individual commuter ferry, or a major traffic crisis in downtown Seattle.
Seattle needed to upgrade its emergency response system, and decided to develop a Common Operating Platform for the State of Washington. Known as WA-COP, this is collection of information sensing and sharing technologies that allow multiple stakeholders to access identical relevant displays of information, to improve coordination and decision making. With the Seattle Police Department as the lead agency, we obtained funding from the Department of Homeland Security to implement the system. AtHoc Connect was chosen to meet the critical needs of mass notification, alerting, and crisis communications within the overall platform.
Bricks Versus Blocks
We could have chosen to develop a system from the ground up. But, such a "brick by brick" system to serve a heterogeneous community would be prohibitively expensive. We had some real-world experience with that, too. King County and the City of Seattle had spent more than $10 million for an information management solution that still does not work the way it probably should.
WA-COP management decided instead to work with ready-made "building blocks," by identifying the core elements of an ideal system, finding the technology vendors that offered the best solutions, and concentrating on linking everything into a viable solution. This approach proved to be faster, more effective, and much more reasonably priced than building a system from scratch.
Responding to Emergencies
We found that there are five components to responding to a crisis:
- Incident Command and Control
- Situational Awareness
- Interoperable Communications
- Information Sharing Support Systems that are flexible, adaptable, and agile
- A User-Defined Operational Picture
WA-COP identified the different components to put the larger system together, and we chose AtHoc Connect for mass notification, alerting, and crisis communications.
We found the people at AtHoc to be extremely focused on making sure that whatever they did for their clients was going to work in a stellar way, and we needed a company that could be just as flexible, agile, and innovative as the WA-COP project already was.
Levels of Crisis and Responses
The typical traffic accident like that described above is just one type of crisis that can paralyze an area and cause all manner of disruptions. In fact, there are several levels of crisis:
- "Level One" – A single incident in a single jurisdiction (a house fire)
- "Level Two" – A single incident in a single jurisdiction involving multiple disciplines (a warehouse fire with injuries)
- "Level Three" – Multiple disciplines involving multiple jurisdictions (a major traffic accident in a major transportation corridor)
- "Level Four" – Multiple disciplines involving multiple jurisdictions and multiple levels of government (a major ferry disaster)
The problem is that, typically, every agency has their own emergency plans, often separate from their day-to-day operational systems. Seattle alone has three different volumes of emergency planning documents. WA-COP encourages the different agencies to continue using their normal operational systems, while integrating WA-COP's into their day-to-day communications.
Emergency systems are sometimes used so infrequently, that the users are unfamiliar with them such that they are not used effectively, and can just add to the confusion. By employing an organic and seamless approach as was done with WA-COP, first responders feel more comfortable using their new tools along with their existing resources when more complex emergencies take place.
For more information on this technology implementation, click here.