An activated emergency management operations center is typically a busy, noisy and chaotic work environment. With radios blaring, phones ringing, and unfamiliar personnel needing close attention, emergency management leadership often find it difficult to communicate effectively while directing the response to the crisis at hand.
This was a typical situation in the emergency response center in the City of Fort Worth, Texas.
To help better protect its citizens, the City of Fort Worth in 2008 began efforts to build a new Joint Emergency Operations Center (JEOC) facility with their Tarrant County emergency management counterparts. The JEOC would one day become the command and control center for event and crisis response coordination across the region and its 1.8 million constituents. Along with physical building and process oriented needs, Office of Emergency Management (OEM) personnel knew they needed to shore up their ‘communication’ capabilities.
OEM leadership had an ambitious goal related to this ‘communication’ need: decrease noise on the center’s operations floor while improving decision making and response times and reducing ongoing operating costs. In accomplishing this goal, one of the problems the city faced was changing the status quo in a domain which can be pretty set in its ways in both process and relationships.
In addressing this problem and delivering on their ‘communication’ needs, city OEM personnel reached out to UnifiedEdge to assist in defining, or as we all soon learned, re-defining their stated goals and objectives while keeping the primary ‘communication’ need at heart. One of the first things we began to shape with the city was changing the ‘communication’ perspective to a ‘collaboration’ strategy and the need to become a more social business.
Emergency management at its core is about collaborating to help solve and address often complex security and/or public safety needs in real time with an emphasis on being timely and right about the decisions being made. Simply addressing the physical aspects of supporting radio or telephony needs in the JEOC was not going to be enough. We needed to address how these traditional ‘communication’ platforms would meld with emerging concepts in the unified communication and collaboration field.
We began to ask questions and tackled misconceptions about IP-based communication strategies and social business concepts as it would relate to work environments of emergency management. Questions included:
- Where does social collaboration fit into your unified communications strategy?
- Can I build these new capabilities on top of my existing infrastructure?
- How will I know my investment won’t be obsolete before it pays off?
- How do you take the special needs of enterprises, or government in this case, into account when designing a solution?
Where did this take us?
At the core of the JEOC Social Business strategy was the need to deliver a platform that would not only integrate traditional radio and telephony toolsets, but deliver these toolsets within a broader real time collaboration platform to provide greater situational awareness and direct communications between emergency management personnel including first responders. UnifiedEdge’s RadioConnect™ solution, delivered as a plug-in inside of IBM’s 8.5.1 Sametime, delivers a multi-channel toolset that enables JEOC personnel to work with communication features as needed. Features such as soft-radio, group IP communications chat, text messaging, click-to-call, and on-line meetings represent some of the end-to-end capabilities now in the hands of the OEM team.
Spring forward to this past winter 2011
The solution was put to test in February 2011 when more than 40 agencies and departments helped manage the center’s security-related tasks for the week leading up to Super Bowl. Participants from the 40+ agencies included city and county departments, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the FBI, the Red Cross, and the U.S. Department of HLS. With a contact list of over 290 officials and constant availability of over 30 ROIP (Radio-over-IP) channels, communication and situational awareness between all levels of government, emergency management, physical security, and public safety was assured.
An investment to deliver similar capabilities would have surpassed $1M. Fort Worth has stated the implementation has cost a fraction of that estimate and has delivered increased capabilities.
Becoming a Social Business
With lives often at stake, effective emergency response requires multiple government and non-government agencies working together. With the new social business software, Fort Worth and Tarrant County’s JEOC can communicate seamlessly with decision-makers including police, firefighters, healthcare providers, government officials and non-government agencies to address emergency situations and other events in real-time.
The ability to quickly locate issues and find expertise, especially with resources that don’t regularly interact, is vital for creating cities that are smarter, more proactive, responsive and safe.
Along the way a number of change components had to be realized. One example of change was the fact that it was OK to move to an IP-based platform to deliver traditional communication capabilities. Additionally, business process concerns such as ‘we actually do not have to be in the same room to make an informed decision and take action’ were addressed. The city is working hard to continue and move forward on their vision for becoming a more social business.
Steve White is President/CEO of UnifiedEdge an Austin, TX based IBM ISV focused on extending and enhancing unified communications connectivity, presence and awareness to the mobile workforce.