Interoperable response

Information sharing system opens lines of communication, improves efficiency
August 01, 2014
Written by Kate Cornick, Philip Dawe, and David Matschke
Even though police, paramedics, and firefighters are equipped with many tools to help them do their jobs, the ability of different departments to work together continues to challenge teams who are stationed kilometres apart, across several jurisdictions.

New initiative  
New initiative of the Canadian Safety and Security Program allows fire-agency information to be shared on the Canada-wide Multi-Agency Situational Awareness System site in real time: circles indicate earthquakes; waves indicate flooding; light bulbs indicate power outages.

 
 
Interoperability is exactly the type of challenge that the Canadian Safety and Security Program (CSSP) aims to tackle. CSSP is a federally funded program that supports the development of science and technology solutions to public safety and security challenges.

Over the past three years, CSSP has created an information-exchange solution to address a critical capability gap: first responder interoperability and multi-agency situational awareness. This solution is the Multi-Agency Situational Awareness System, referred to as MASAS.

Using common technologies based on open national communication standards, MASAS makes it possible to connect different departments’ systems, allowing them to exchange real-time, location-based incident information relevant to emergency managers and first responders.

With this system, responders can share data such as flood plains, fire perimeters, natural hazard alerts, evacuation zones and search areas.

In short, MASAS collects and distributes information capable of reaching a large audience within seconds. Picture a Google Maps layout to which information can be uploaded by hundreds of users, displaying the exact location of an incident. Anything that may be of help to responders, from temporary road closures to weather alerts, also appears on MASAS – with the use of different icons.

In an effort to provide the best possible situational awareness, MASAS relies on its users to input desired content into their own systems – information that can then be fed into MASAS and viewed by other connected agencies.

Although this national project still operates as a pilot, MASAS’ membership has doubled since 2012 when there were about 250 agencies using the system. Now, more than 500 agencies across Canada are accessing MASAS, from local fire departments to federal agencies such as the Department of National Defence and Health Canada.

MASAS also provides regional situational awareness by pulling together information from several agencies in a region. This means that different departments can learn about what is happening in a nearby town and see up-to-date incident information. Should additional resources be required, the requested team can quickly become aware of the situation while preparing to respond, improving its overall response efforts.

Emergency responders rely on a dispatcher to inform them of local incidents and to direct their services. Fire services respond to routine calls every day, but what happens when a car crashes on a busy highway involving a school bus, a transport truck containing hazardous materials, and half a dozen other drivers? The call comes in and a response team of firefighters will rush to the accident site. But are any routes closed? Are there other incidents in close proximity? What other agencies will be deployed? These concerns, among many others, can be alleviated with the help of MASAS.

Although this interactive and collaborative tool has already increased national situational awareness, there is still room for improvement. While MASAS has huge potential for the responder community, few first-response agencies use MASAS for day-to-day operations because it has been difficult to integrate local information into the system. That has changed.

One of the leading sources of situational awareness information is the public, and the first electronic record of most incidents is a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system. Automating the sharing of certain types of CAD information through MASAS can bring an incident to the attention of the greater public-safety community in seconds instead of minutes or hours, and eliminates the need for additional human resources.

Supported through the CSSP, the Kelowna Fire Department in British Columbia partnered with the FDM Software Group (its CAD provider) to develop software to link its CAD system to MASAS. This allows Kelowna firefighters to use MASAS for both local and national situational awareness. Connecting these two systems through a standard interface allows the department to rapidly see all incidents that require the involvement of multiple agencies – also known as high-crisis scenarios. All clients using the FDM dispatch system have the opportunity to do the same.

“Our challenge before the FDM-MASAS system was implemented was the time it took to relay real-time information to other first responders and stakeholders in an emergency,” says Brian Moore, dispatch supervisor with the Kelowna Fire Department and deputy emergency program co-ordinator with the Central Okanagan Regional Emergency Program.

“Once the Regional Emergency Operations Centre was opened, it typically took 15 to 90 minutes to become aware of the magnitude of an incident or event. Now all we do is turn on the lights and fire up MASAS. Everyone now knows what everyone else is doing. It’s making a tremendous difference in our planning, response and recovery for planned and emergency incidents of all sizes.” 

As Moore also noted, a key secondary benefit is the significant reduction in repeat telephone calls, emails, faxes and reports required to relay situational awareness information that could be more openly shared at once with all users.

It has now become apparent to the public safety and securities communities that MASAS helps responders from all services co-ordinate a fast, effective response. Over the last year, key MASAS developments have been of particular interest to fire services. In 2013, the New Brunswick Department of Natural Resources Wildland Fire Reporting System was integrated with MASAS, as was Selkirk’s Wildfire System for Yukon, both automatically posting around-the-clock incident information to MASAS. Last year, MASAS  began publishing Ontario’s open wildfire event information and using data from Environment Canada. As a result, MASAS can now inform firefighters of wind speed and direction – valuable information for firefighters planning what to do at the scene of an incident.

Natural Resources Canada has recently begun to provide MASAS with near-real time, satellite-derived flood information of areas in crisis requiring a national emergency response. These projects, and others underway, demonstrate the potential for integrating existing department features or information services with MASAS to increase first-responder situational awareness – providing public safety and security agencies with a better picture of what is happening on the ground. With the addition of live CAD data into MASAS, the picture is more complete. With this connection established, other fire, paramedic, and police services can now use MASAS to improve their daily operations.

In consultation with experts across Canada, a national situational awareness system like MASAS has become a reality and the benefits are apparent: enhancing information sharing, improving co-ordination, and eliminating the duplication of efforts – overall resulting in a more organized and effective response.

The CSSP continues to work with responders to improve interoperability and address key challenges for all responders, including fire services. A key element of the CSSP’s success is its Communities of Practice (CoPs), which bring together experts from various public safety and security domains to share knowledge and experience. Their combined expertise helps the CSSP develop projects and activities that address the real needs of responders on the ground.

  The Fire CoP includes fire-service leaders, researchers, and members from industry who have joined to discuss specific challenges for the fire services, such as the need to identify common practices and improve how firefighters alert communities. These priorities are driven by the need to provide the best possible education, training, equipment, and information to first responders, and to increase interoperability and collaboration among the services. By working closely with first responders to better understand their operations, the CSSP can ensure that projects like MASAS address the needs of these communities and that the results of the research are transitioned into useable products and information.






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