WebEOC Fusion for Disasters and Everyday Use

by Joseph Cahill

Publisher’s Note: The family of publications sent two senior representatives to the Renaissance Hotel in Boston, Massachusetts, last month to attend the ESi Fourth Annual WebEOC User Conference. The following report is based on the information provided to them during that conference.

The principal reason for establishing an Emergency Operations Center, or EOC, is to bring to one place, very quickly, all of the information relevant to a specific incident or situation so that that information can be reviewed, correlated, and then provided to decision makers, not only at the EOC but also at the scene of the incident. An additional benefit provided by establishment of an EOC is that it creates a central system through which resources and tasks can be both requested and acquired, making a more efficient and better coordinated response possible. The end result, of course, should and will be better, and better informed, decisions made earlier in the aftermath of the incident.

ESi’s base product, the WebEOC, is a powerful Microsoft server and SQL-based product that helps those in charge of the EOC manage the flow of information during an emergency situation – SQL stands for Structured Query Language, and refers to a specialized type of database.  Each user simply logs into the system from his or her computer and is able to communicate with all other users of the system, posting information that helps provide situational awareness in real time.

The WebEOC can run on the ESi’s servers with users connecting either over the Internet or on the customer’s servers, which are connected to users over LAN/WAN (local or wide-area) networks or across the Internet. To enhance security, these log-in servers are password-protected, the data on them is encrypted, and – when running on the agency’s server – their software runs behind the user’s firewall.

The Internet connectivity option allows a decision maker to log in from any location on the Internet and to act as if that individual is physically present in the EOC. This capability gives elected officials and department executives the ability to keep up to date without making phone calls or physically entering the EOC.

The WebEOC is compliant and compatible not only with National Incident Management System (NIMS) guidelines – including those specified for ICS (Incident Command System) purposes – but also with: (a) the numerous Emergency Support Functions (ESFs) laid out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); and (b) the terminology and forms used in Emergency Management Assistance Compacts (EMACs), matching those spelled out in these important national standard guidelines.

As an ancillary benefit, EMAC compliance allows the individual WebEOC user to create and print forms that conform to the EMAC agreements between states that make it possible for those states to assist one another in times of emergency. An important point to remember here is that, although the WebEOC user can create new job titles, those already in the system are both NIMS- and ICS-compliant, a factor that allows officials from other jurisdictions to integrate quickly into the response structure even when the agencies involved have never previously worked together.

For the same reason, using the NIMS resource-typing definitions to make requests through the system’s resource-management module means that both the requester and the provider of resources will be using a common language.

WebFusion and the Tale of Two Cities

One of the highlights of last month’s user conference came when ESi rolled out its WebFusion collaborative communications platform – which integrates multiple WebEOCs, running on different servers, into a community working together and in tandem at the same time.

To understand how the system works one might consider the example of a hurricane making landfall between two cities, “A” and “B.” City A, the state Emergency Operations Center, and the state police all are using the WebEOC to manage the emergency – but each of those three users also has its own data running separately on its own servers. However, the EOCs for the county and for City B are using a different EOC management product. Prior to the availability of the WebFusion platform, information had to be manually transferred from one system to the other – an unwieldy and time-consuming process frequently requiring the double entry of information.

Other solutions that were available required more technical support and had other significant limitations. These requirements often kept “outside the EOC” information as written information and thus limited its availability to those who might need it the most. WebFusion, however, allows the three separate WebEOCs to talk to one another, pushing information and requests back and forth, enhancing and facilitating overall cooperation, and improving situational awareness between and among the state, the state police, and City A. The automated communications are limited to outgoing information only.

Creating significant additional value to the upgraded system is that, with the simple installation of a software adapter, both City B and the county can be added to the growing WebFusion family and thereby bring their information into the system as well.

There is a truism in the emergency-management field that, to be managed successfully, massive events need a massive tool. The new WebFusion system serves as that tool by allowing numerous WebEOCs to link together to form a coherent whole that can be used to manage events large enough in scale to extend across several political and operational jurisdictions.

The WebEOC Mapper and Resource Manager

Emergency managers agree that it is much easier to comprehend the full extent of a hazard by seeing its “footprint” on a map – for example, the area that would be affected by the projected path of a hurricane. Visual representation on a map allows decision makers to understand, among many other things, the specific locations of resources and hazards more readily than would be possible by using a dry “spread sheet” or compilation of various types of lists or other stand-alone information.

In a similar way, public speakers have long known that the more complicated the information is that they are discussing the more valuable graphic representation can be to an audience, both in the comprehension of the information provided and the speed at which it is understood. By making available on a map anything that can be placed spatially the system’s software makes it immediately relatable to everything else on the map. A special WebEOC “Mapper” feature combines the power of the ESRI GIS (Geographic Information System) data and software with the emergency-management power of WebEOC 7.

The WebEOC “Resource Manager,” another special feature, allows emergency managers to track not only the resources needed but also the requests for those resources, thereby facilitating both the prioritization of requests and the tracking of costs as well as the eventual use of those same resources.

Large-scale emergencies that stretch across a number of jurisdictions are extremely difficult to manage because of the complexity involved in the tracking of multiple resources and the many requests for assistance likely to be pouring in. However, by tracking the resources already in use (including those staged and ready to go) – as well as the requests both filled and pending – the system’s Resource Tracker gives emergency managers a comprehensive and readily understandable overview of the logistics involved in the response. The resources created and managed by the Resource Manager feature can be assigned coordinates or locations on the WebEOC Mapper and displayed on the incident map.

Strong Partners Make for a Stronger Response

ESi has partnered not only with nationally known corporations such as Microsoft and ESRI but also with such specialized and industry-specific companies as Salamander Industries, 3-GIS, Strohl Systems, Visual Risk Technologies, MIR3, EMSystems, and others to provide bridges between the WebEOC and other needs. In some of these working relationships the goal was to provide capabilities not necessarily native to the WebEOC family of software; in others the goal was to “obsolete-proof” customers who were using other software systems but wanted to integrate with the WebEOC. Firefox and Safari web browsers, to cite but two examples, also are supported by the newest version of WebEOC.

Interestingly, one of ESi’s advertising themes focuses on the term “Boundless Collaboration.” The use of WebFusion brings that collaboration to a new and much higher level. Ideally, WebEOC should be integrated into everyday operations not only to keep an agency’s staff conversant with the software being used but also to determine what does (or does not) work within the agency’s own organizational structure.