The efficient and effective tracking of personnel, information, and supplies during a dangerous incident can have a significant impact on the outcome of the response. Moreover, the ability to track those persons with access to the incident site helps ensure that only authorized personnel are permitted to be present at the site. For that reason alone, assigning specific individuals to track such information, and various related data, will help ensure: (a) that the information available is transmitted properly; and (b) that the supplies needed are tracked and allocated efficiently.
In the spring of 2009, flooding in North Dakota and Minnesota reached record levels, compelling the governor of North Dakota not only to issue a statewide emergency flood declaration but also to activate the state’s National Guard. In addition, the governments of North Dakota’s Cass County and the city of Fargo, the county seat, activated both their emergency operations center (EOC) and their tactical operations center (TOC). Unfortunately, the TOC personnel encountered several issues with tracking information related to rescue missions, and in some cases management personnel did not receive certain information about those missions until after the operation had been completed.
The TOC ultimately assigned personnel to each marine rescue unit involved to oversee the collection and dissemination of the critical information needed for tracking the various rescue missions. Having those personnel accompany the marine rescue units helped emergency managers not only track their teams but also keep up to date on the status of the operations taking place.
While the 2009 spring floods focused on the use of personnel for tracking, an incident in California resulted in the use of advanced technology to improve both communications and tracking. In January 2005, a Metrolink train crashed with another vehicle in Glendale, California, causing two additional trains to derail. Dealing with that incident, which killed 11 people and injured 180 others, required a major rescue and triage operation that involved hundreds of firefighters from Los Angeles County, with additional help (provided under mutual-aid agreements) from various local police departments, sheriff departments, and highway patrol units.
Moving Forward: From Post-It Notes to Interoperable Communications
The Los Angeles County response agencies followed the National Incident Management System (NIMS) guidelines and established a unified command to respond to the incident. However, they had to use pencils, paper, and Post-It notes to track resources and deployed personnel. As a result, the response agencies encountered difficulties sharing information with one another. Later, though – after the Los Angeles Regional Common Operational Picture Program (LARCOPP) Committee was created – the members of that committee recommended the development of an emergency management system that could be deployed in the field during such incidents to transmit information in real time. This solution helps track information and personnel in the field, which means that such information can be gathered even while emergency teams are responding to an incident.
Exercises are equally important in developing new tracking techniques. In August 2006, the Philadelphia Urban Area conducted a full-scale Interoperable Communications exercise at the Strafford Train Station in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Among those participating in the exercise were 49 representatives from nine emergency management agencies and two private-sector organizations. The purpose of the exercise was to test the participants’ ability to maintain interoperable communications after an explosion causes a derailment on the train tracks. The Wayne exercise demonstrated, among other things, the need to designate a communications unit leader during the initial stages of an incident response to assist with maintaining communications and the tracking of information, supplies, and personnel.
The spring floods in North Dakota and Minnesota, the train crash in California, and the communications exercise in Pennsylvania had one thing in common: All of them confirmed the literally life-or-death importance of effective and efficient resource tracking in emergency management and response operations. The lesson learned is this: The tracking of information, supplies, and personnel will have a significant impact on the success of the response effort itself. Through the use of interoperable communication systems, emergency managers can track responders, ensure that only authorized personnel have access to the incident site, properly share the information available, and allocate the supplies needed.
For additional information on similar incidents and detailed after-action reports, please visit the Lessons Learned Information Sharing website at http://www.llis.dhs.gov
Omar Alkhalaf, a contractor with SAIC, is an outreach and operations analyst for Lessons Learned Information Sharing (LLIS.gov), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency’s national online network of lessons learned, best practices, and innovative ideas for the nation’s homeland security and emergency management communities. He received a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs with dual concentrations in Global Diplomacy and Governance/Middle East & North Africa Region from George Mason University in Northern Virginia.