Category Archives: emergency operations

Echo, Public Safety, FirstNet

Amazon's Echo

Amazon’s Echo

I recently attended and spoke at the Government Technology Beyond-the-Beltway event.  Our panel of local and state Chief Information Officers (CIOs) was asked “what is the most significant technology advance in your lifetime”.   I answered “either the IBM PC or the iPhone”.  Others mentioned the Internet and the world-wide-web.   (No one mentioned the development of email, invented by Ray Tomlinson, who just recently passed away, and sometimes considered the bane of our existence.)

A more significant question might be “what will be the most significant technology advance in the near future”.   Or, to narrow it a bit, what will be the most significant technology advance for public safety first responders in the near future?

I’m convinced such technologies already exist, or, in the words of William Gibson:  “the future is here, it is just not evenly distributed yet”.

One of the candidates is Amazon’s Echo.

Echo is a speech-enabled technology which is arguably better than Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana and which can be used right now in homes to do everything from order more laundry detergent to play music to control the thermostat. All by recognizing speech.  And connecting to Amazon’s website, of course.

We hire and extensively train police officers, state troopers, sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and paramedics as first responders. Then, because we want to be “data driven”, we tell them to sit down at computers and type crime reports, hand-write medical reports, prepare fire code inspections and do what are essentially clerical tasks which take them away from the real work of law enforcement and fire protection.

Enter Echo.

Why don’t we have Echo-like devices in police vehicles and fire apparatus and even in police officer badges or firefighter helmets?

star-trek-comm-badge

Comm Badge

Can you imagine a cop who comes to your house to investigate a burglary, taps her badge (just like the CommBadge in Star Trek) and asks “Alexa, have any red Schwinn bicycles been recovered lately?” or “Alexa, search all nearby pawn shops for Canon EOS rebel single-lens reflex cameras sold in the last three days”.

Or the traffic officer who goes to his police car and simply speaks to the car “Car 54 take a collision report for two vehicles who collided at this intersection twenty-two minutes ago,” then proceeds to dictate the report to the car.  And the Echo-like device in the car prompts the officer for any additional information, even doing database searches returning information like “Officer Schrier, I detect that the red Ford Mustang involved in this collision has fourteen unpaid parking tickets.  Shall I call for a tow truck?”

Similarly paramedics responding to an emergency medical call could talk to their devices “Alexa, get me the detailed health records for William M. Schrier, apparent heart attack victim, specifically including any known medications he is using and any known adverse reactions to meds”.  Or “Call Schrier’s personal physician at the highest priority, locating the doctor immediately for this emergency.” And that same paramedic could dictate observations and reports, rather than hand-writing them or typing them.

language-translation-software-image

Language Translation

Another significant use for speech-activated devices are language translation.   We are a nation of immigrants, and real-time translation services like Google translate or Skype.

Although most police cars are equipped with mobile data computers today, many police officers are justifiably skeptical of writing reports in their vehicles, especially if it means looking down at a screen and a keyboard, and not paying attention to their surroundings.   Killing of police officers like those in New York City, Houston/Harris County, and Lakewood (Washington) have reinforced this fear.  But with speech-to-text such as Echo, officers might be able to spend more time on the street, less time at computers in the police station.

Even in daily situations, police officers who need to tap or type on their in-car computer while driving represent a potential hazard to themselves and others.  Being able to give verbal commands such as “acknowledge that dispatch and set status to en route” or “text Sergeant Schrier that I’ll be following up immediately” improve not only speed but also safety for officers.

Echo and similar technologies do, however, require high speed Internet access.

FirstNet-logo-vertical

FirstNet

For first responders working in the field, that means 4G LTE networks.   The First Responder Network Authority (“FirstNet”) is planning to build just such a network, specifically designed for first responders.  FirstNet will, perhaps, have applications, apps and devices specifically tailored for first responder missions.  FirstNet recognized the importance of such voice technologies in a blog post here.

Even more importantly, public safety software vendors of computer-aided dispatch systems (CAD) and fire/police records management systems (RMS) should immediately start integrating speech-to-text technologies into their products.   A speech-enabled RMS will significantly reduce the time for a paramedic, law enforcement officer or firefighter to create reports.  Such reports will be more accurate and of higher quality, and first responders will spend more time on the streets and less time typing in front of a computer.

Echo or similar speech-to-command technologies should be high on FirstNet’s list.  And on the list of any company creating software for first responders.

 

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Filed under emergency operations, eRepublic, firefighting, FirstNet, future of technology, Law Enforcement

A Lesson for FirstNet from the Forests of the Okanogan

FirstNet and OneNet

FirstNet and OneNet

As the Washington State Point of Contact (SPOC) for the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) my team and I from the state capital, Olympia, visit first responders around Washington to inform them about and involve them with developing plans for the nationwide public safety wireless network.

As you might guess, “suits” from the distant state capital are often greeted with skepticism, especially when they arrive to talk about a federal government program.

FirstNet was created by Congress in 2012 and funded with $7 billion to construct a wireless network for responders, allowing them to securely use apps, smartphones and other mobile devices to protect the public safety.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015, we visited Okanogan County and the Colville Indian Tribes.   We spent several hours with sheriffs’ deputies, firefighters, emergency managers, mayors, tribal members and civilians from four counties and the tribal reservation.

We got an earful.

The Okanogan country has been through hell.

Okanogan Wild Fire

Okanogan Wild Fire

Two years running this area has seen successively larger wild fires.   They are the largest in the recorded history of Washington.   Hundreds of residents lost their homes.   Hundreds of people barely escaped with their lives.

Three firefighters lost their lives.   Radio communications were partly to blame.

The Okanogan country is rugged.   There are few towers for the land mobile radio networks used by deputies, police, firefighters, paramedics and utilities.  Fewer towers still for cellular services.   Most towns and areas, if they have cell service, have a single tower providing that service, with multiple carriers using it.  Backhaul (connection to the Internet) for these towers is often a single fiber optic cable line, or a single microwave link.

Fire burns through fiber optic cable, particularly if it is carried on poles.  In both of the last two years fiber melted in these fires knocked out 911 service to large parts of these counties, and terminated service on cell towers.  Heroic efforts by some of commercial cellular companies re-established service but often areas were without service for weeks.  At one point the entire government of the town of Pateros operated with just one cell phone for communications for several days.

Responders here, like those throughout the state, are skeptical of FirstNet.   Their story is illustrative of the problems FirstNet must solve in order to be successful in the 95% of the nation’s geography which is rural, remote or isolated.

The first problem is simply coverage.  Most towns have cell phone and wireless data service, and sometimes service from multiple commercial carriers.  But vast tracts of land have no service, or only service if a resident drives down the road a piece.   Many people move to these areas for the remoteness, for the beauty, for the isolation.  And, with lack of Internet or cell service, that’s exactly what they get.

Coverage affects public safety.  In many cases during these wildfires, deputies and police officers and firefighters drove from door-to-door to tell people to evacuate (such orders were often ignored, as explained below).

Cell coverage affects wild land firefighting.   When a significant fire erupts, and an incident command post is created, it is often located on a state highway with cellular service.   The highway location also allows for logistics – food and support services.  Having cell service enables not just incident command, but also allows firefighters to stay in touch with their families.

Cellular phone and data coverage is important, but too often coverage is non-existent over much of these areas in the Okanogan.

Microwave Tower

Microwave Tower

The next problem is something we call “public safety grade”.  As stated above, too often multiple commercial cellular carriers all use the same tower, and it will only have battery backup or a small generator on site as backup in case of an electrical power outage.  And it often has only one connection to the outside world via microwave or fiber optic cable.  Wildfires melt fiber, and when electrical power fails the batteries also are drained after a few hours.  Of course these failures always occur during a disaster, exacerbating communications problems.

Another problem is communications access for members of the public.  For example, the entire Colville Indian Reservation – homes, businesses, tribal government buildings – has only wireless microwave links on towers for Internet access.   But the tribal government uses Facebook pages for communicating with tribal members during emergencies, and that requires reliable Internet.  Incidentally, most non-tribal fire departments and emergency management officials also use Facebook pages for public updates.  When cell service is down, when microwave towers run out of power, communications with residents and tribal members also are eliminated.

Most other, non-tribal, communities in the Okanogan face similar challenges: single cell towers or single points of failure for connections to the Internet, and usually both.

Ing-moody-soo

Mayor Soo Ing-Moody

As a matter of fact, Mayor Soo Ing-Moody of Twisp, and other public officials in the region, have publicly complained that they often receive evacuation orders only from watching commercial television stations.

And FirstNet, wonderful as it might be, will be a responder network, with priority to first responders.   The public is left out in the cold (or, in the case of wildfires, in the hot seat).   FirstNet will provide no direct communications for the public.  When their cell service fails, when the power to microwave towers serving the Colville Tribe are gone, they are “in the dark” for communications.

Finally, there is great skepticism about FirstNet phased development plans.   Residents of the Okanogan are used to getting hand-me-downs.  Although this area has a significant second-home population and tourist trade, commercial cellular companies always build in urban areas first.  Service is the Okanogan is rarely – and slowly – improved.  And that is exactly FirstNet’s present plan – build in urban areas first.

There is great skepticism about FirstNet’s promises:   better coverage, public-safety-grade coverage, for equal or less cost.  All while having a user base 5% the size of Verizon or AT&T (perhaps 5 million subscribers to cover the network’s costs, rather than more than 100 million users).   What sort of business plan magic is this?  Exactly how does that work?

Given all these challenges, local public safety and elected officials are justifiably skeptical of a federal agency, FirstNet, which comes and promises a new wireless data network for responders.

But, as always, great problems spawn great opportunity.   How can FirstNet seize this opportunity to help the people living in these remote areas?

  1. Mobile Cell Site

    Mobile Cell Site

    Deployables. The only real solution to improving coverage – especially in unpopulated areas subject to wild fires – is a robust deployable strategy.  Deployables are cell sites which would be rapidly be set up and activated when needed.  These deployables might be cell-on-wheel (COW) trucks like the commercial carriers have, or they might be cell sites carried on existing police vehicles and fire apparatus, or they might be backpackable cell sites which can be carried or driven to mountaintop locations.   Perhaps there are yet-to-be-fully-developed deployable strategies like Google’s Project Loon (balloons), drone-based cell sites (although those potentially interfere with firefighting airplanes), or low-earth orbit satellites.

But people in the Okanogan are skeptical of fragile new technology which tends to fail when it is needed most.  Satellite is slow and expensive.  And again, who pays for all this, and maintains it?    Where is it based – locally or in some distant state?

FirstNet must have a robust plan for deployables.  Ideally, such a plan would include the ability for local firefighters and state agencies to rapidly pull out the equipment, set it up, and have wireless connectivity where they need it.

  1. Public safety grade. To be “public safety grade”, cell sites in remote areas must have at least two separate connections to the outside world, for example a fiber line and a microwave link, or two fiber lines running in separate directions.  Public safety grade sites must withstand potential earthquakes or fires.   Such sites must be able to operate for many days, if not weeks, disconnected from electric utilities by using generators or solar panels.

In most cases FirstNet could “beef up” existing commercial sites by adding those features, saving scarce dollars.

  1. Access for residents. In the law which created it, Congress expressly prohibited FirstNet from offering service to businesses or consumers.  However, in a disaster when lives are at stake, such niceties as that law are ludicrous.   But there are ways to stay within the law but also address the problems mentioned by Mayor Ing-Moody and the Colville Tribes for informing their residents and tribal members.  Here are specific ideas:

(1)  When constructing the additional backhaul links above, allow tribes and local communities to use the connections for their Internet access.  For example, let’s suppose there is a cell tower with one existing microwave link to the outside world.  FirstNet could add a fiber optic line to that tower, making it more resilient – public safety grade.  Installing 24 fibers is only a tiny bit more expensive than installing two fibers.   The additional fibers could be used by tribes and remote communities for high speed internet access for their residents and tribal members.

Sonim Phone - a Band 14 Device

Sonim Phone – a Band 14 Device

(2)  FirstNet spectrum in every device.  FirstNet will operate on a specific set of 700 Megahertz frequencies called “Band 14”.   Very few smart phones or tablet computers have Band 14 built into them today.  But let’s suppose every smart phone and tablet computer sold in the United States in the future had Band 14 built in.   If such a device was used by a first responder – a volunteer firefighter or search and rescue volunteer or other public safety professional – they would easily be able to use FirstNet.  But in real disasters, when commercial services are down, responders and elected officials could activate band 14 in every device, thereby alerting citizens to danger or to evacuate.   Indeed, in incidents like hostage-taking and school lockdowns, responders could use Band 14 to securely talk to victims and teachers to rapidly assess situations.

FirstNet holds great potential to improve public safety in the many disasters and daily incidents we face.  But elected officials and responders throughout the nation are skeptical of promises without concrete plans to address the real problems faced by our communities.   FirstNet, in developing its plans for each state, needs to address the concerns of these officials through innovative, realistic, strategies which make a real difference in the lives of people throughout each state.

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Filed under disaster, emergency operations, FirstNet, OneNet, radio

Firstnet Finds a Fireball

Sue Swenson

Sue Swenson

On June 3rd, Sue Swenson assumed the role of Chair of the FirstNet Board of Directors.  She spoke to a group of about 500 people from public safety agencies, industry and the federal government at a conference near Boulder, Colorado, sponsored by Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR), an agency of the federal government’s Department of Commerce.  Her prepared remarks are here.

In Sue Swenson, FirstNet has found a fireball of a leader.

Her remarks are refreshing.   She admitted past Firstnet mistakes which have set back the effort.   She’s willing to admit her own, past, misgivings.  But she convincingly conveyed why she accepted the Chair’s role:  this work is something which will make a difference in the lives of every American.   And that same motivation drives the rest of us.

Sue has a sense of urgency, but not emergency.   I hate it when a tech employee comes to me and says “we have an emergency”.  As a former cop my response is always “oh yeah, whose life is in danger?”   Swenson feels the same way – unless someone has died, problems can be fixed.   She’s obviously a “can do” leader.

Sue is draconian on customer service.  When FirstNet makes a commitment they must keep that commitment.   If you can’t do it, don’t make the commitment.  “Don’t do that with me [drop commitments], or you will suffer.”

Sue’s remarks indicate a new era of transparency and openness is starting at FirstNet.  Here are some of the other indicators:

  • The FirstNet Board meeting yesterday was conducted in a room open to the public at a hotel.   No more full Board meetings behind closed doors, with only a handful of people in the room, televised with grainy video and hit-and-miss audio.   This is the way city councils and state legislatures and other public bodies meet – it is great to see the Board meeting that same standard.
  • FirstNet staff, to a person, are open and engaging – in person, on the phone, via email.  They ask questions, they ask for opinions, they answer questions honestly, understanding they only have a few of the answers.  Most of FirstNet’s future is unknown – it is yet to be written.  They, like Sue, are committed.
  • FirstNet has promised a public comment and input process on major parts of its work, like a comprehensive network request for proposals (RFP) for equipment and services.
  • The FirstNet website, while still rudimentary, contains hints of the new transparency.  Features such as a blog give timely news.  For example, FirstNet now has about 90 employees and contractors and we’re seeing announcements of some of those hires on the blog and website.  In fact, FirstNet says they will accept guest blog posts from outside – and I’ll be taking them up on that offer!
  • FirstNet encourages potential vendors to engage and meet with staff.   This is extraordinarily important as it keeps industry engaged, keeps FirstNet informed as the technology changes, and gives even small vendors – like local independent telephone companies and tech startups – a chance to be heard.  I’ve heard that, in the past, FirstNet staff listened politely to presentations but were forbidden to ask questions or engage.  So this is a welcome change.
  • FirstNet is highlighting best practices from states – work like a great poster developed by Oregon or a sharepoint site developed by Maryland.   This indicates a true intention to collaborate and work with states.

All is not sweetness and light, of course.   It is still frustrating to hear a lot of talk about the “program roadmap” but yet only have a two-page executive summary which describes it.   T. J. Kennedy, at the Board meeting, described some of the milestones – financial, personnel – which his team has met.   But most of the roadmap is a really a fog to those of us on the outside.

There is also the issue of sustainability. Swenson indicated “the strategy for FirstNet must be a sustainable plan, and that includes recapitalization of the network”.   This issue – a business plan to finance the construction and operation of the network – is of enormous interest to elected officials such as fire district commissioners and state legislators.   But no viable public business plan exists.  How will a nationwide network with only a few million users be able to stay current in technology and coverage and user demands as LTE wireless technology rapidly develops?  We hope and trust a business plan is under development.   Many of us in states could help with this if we see draft versions and perhaps run it through the proposed public comment process

Telecommunicators - Almost Invisible Responders

Telecommunicators – Almost Invisible Responders

I admire retiring chair Sam Ginn, and thank him for taking on the responsibility – something he didn’t have to do – to launch this whole enterprise and get the FirstNet ball rolling and keep it rolling up some pretty steep hills.   And I especially thank him for a phone call he made in mid-2012 to recruit Sue Swenson to the Board.

I look forward to the Swenson Era at FirstNet.   As she eloquently stated:  “[In the past] We didn’t make it clear whose network it is – it is public safety’s network and we have the privilege of working on it.”

I feel the same way – this network is owned by cops and firefighters and electrical lineworkers and building inspectors and EMT’s and telecommunicators who answer 911 calls every day.   Like Sue, I’m just privileged to work on it.

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Filed under 911, emergency operations, FirstNet, Law Enforcement, radio

The Oso Disaster:  Should there be an “App for That”?

Snohomish County Mudslide

Snohomish County Mudslide

The horrific mudslide and loss of life in Snohomish County on March 22nd is an ongoing tragedy in Washington State.   Six days after the disaster, 16 people are known dead and 90 are still missing.     A debate rages about Steelhead Drive near Oso, Washington.  This was a known slide area, geologically unstable.  Search and rescue workers will be hard at work for some weeks digging through the mud and debris scattered across one square mile up to 30 feet deep.

Why were building permits issued for this area?   Should the County government have purchased these homes to get the residents out of harm’s way, as King County apparently did in Maple Valley?  Was the Washington National Guard activated quickly enough?   These questions are unanswerable at this time.

One fact is certain:  future disasters such as the Oso Slide will occur.   They might be slides, or bridge collapses or floods.   They could be much larger in scope:  an earthquake, lahar, tornado or terrorist event.

We live in an age of the Internet and smartphones and ubiquitous technology.   There are apps and technologies which can help responders to disasters such as the Oso Slide.   What are they, and how can we apply them.

Mapping

Oso-slide-sh

Oso Slide Map

Most people understand maps.  Maps help us intuitively understand our place in the world and even our location on our block.   Maps on our smartphones guide us easily to unknown addresses and give us warning of traffic problems on the route.

The Oso Slide and similar disaster scenes present a new problem:  the third dimension: height (or now, depth).   We know the two dimensional map of the Oso:  outlines of properties and the Stillaguamish river and Highway 530.   And we know a vast volume of mud now covers that area.  But in pursuing rescue efforts, how deep is the mud in any particular area?   Where should searchers concentrate their efforts?

LIDAR of Oso Slide

LIDAR of Oso Slide

Ideally, we’d have 3-dimensional maps of all such geographic areas prior to a slide, and we’d be able to quickly produce 3-dimensional maps after a slide or lahar.  Such maps would show the depth and extent of the mud throughout the disaster area.   Such maps can be produced by technologies such as LIDAR and pictometry.

Common Operating Picture

Common Operating Picture or COP is an extension of mapping.  COP maps show everyone involved in responding to the disaster – but especially the incident commanders – an up-to-the-minute view of the scene.  COP software will show the location of each individual responder, the location of all equipment on the scene, markers for human remains discovered and all other significant debris.  The COP software allows the incident commander to properly direct new resources – vehicles, equipment and people – to exactly where they are needed on-scene.    And COP software protects the responders by accounting for them every minute they are in the disaster area.

Just as importantly, COP will produce a history of the disaster as rescue unfolds.  It will show areas which have been physically surveyed, where remains were uncovered and how the rescue proceeded.   This is vital so that responders can learn about the incident and train to better handle the next one.

Seahawks Victory Parade

Seahawks Victory Parade (Reuters)

COP is vital not just in mudslides, but in just about any incident, whether it be for deploying police and emergency medical teams during the Seahawks victory parade, protecting fans at a Mariners’ baseball game, managing a major fire or responding to a terrorist event.    COP is the incident commanders’ best friend when it comes to managing all the responders and equipment on-scene.

As one example, the Seattle Police Department leads an effort to deploy COP software from a company called 4QTRS for emergency and incident management.   COP software should be deployed and used by every emergency response agency in the nation.

GPS and cell phones

Most of us know our smart phones contain global positioning software (GPS).   GPS allows us to tweet and use Foursquare and to post photographs to Facebook which automagically contain the location of the photograph.  Many of us use apps like “Find my iPhone” which depend upon GPS.

From an emergency response viewpoint, when you call 911 from a mobile phone the GPS in the phone or (if it has no GPS), the location of the phone as triangulated between nearby cell phone towers allows responders to find you, even if you can’t tell them exactly where you are.

Beyond mobile phones, a number of companies are starting to develop and produce small devices which can be attached to keys or pets or even to kids (in their clothes or backpacks, not in their bodies!) to quickly locate lost keys or wallets.  PebbleBee is one such device under development by two Boeing engineers in their spare time.

There are many applications of GPS in search-and-rescue.

In the case of the Oso slide, emergency services and wireless companies could find every signal which was active in the area based on records from nearby towers.  Those signals link back to a wireless phone number and account.  This gives responders some idea of which people (or at least which people’s mobile phones) were in the area prior to the slide.    It is doubtful the cell phone signal would travel through many feet of mud, but it is still possible that, even after the slide ended, telecommunications company records might show which cell phones were active and give some idea of where the phones were located.

In many other kinds of disasters, such information might be crucial.  During floods, major snowstorms, tornadoes and hurricanes, having an accurate fix on all the mobile phones in the disaster area, both before and after the event, would be critical to finding and rescuing the injured.

Yes, tracking the locations of individual people is very much like living in a surveillance state.  But if you are buried in a collapsed house it could mean the difference between life and death.  Your family’s life.

License Plate Recognition and Traffic Video Cameras

Video cameras are ubiquitous on streets and highways nationwide.   Seattle Police collected over 7 million plate numbers and locations using license plate recognition (LPR) software in 2012.

Perhaps every traffic camera in the state should be equipped with digital recording software to record the vehicles and license plates passing down state highways.   In the case of the Oso Slide, emergency managers could quickly determine which vehicles entered the Steelhead Drive area but did not leave, giving good evidence of who might be trapped in the slide.

Again, such video tracking and license plate recognition raises grave concerns about privacy.   Polices and laws may need to be crafted to keep the data restricted, perhaps just in the hands of transportation departments unless allowed for police or responder use in an emergency.  The digital records should be destroyed after some short period of time, e.g. 30 days.

School Emergencies and Building Diagrams

A Potential Campus Diagram App

A Potential Campus Diagram App

School shootings and other incidents of domestic terrorism involving schools, shopping malls and elected officials are all too common.  Anyone can name a dozen or such incidents such as the Tacoma Mall shooting from a few years ago, Gabby Giffords’ shooting, Columbine, LAX airport, the Washington Navy Yard and the terrible massacre at Sandy Hook.

Can apps and technology help with the response to such events?

Prepared Response is a firm in Kirkland which specializes in digitizing school building and campus diagrams, shopping mall diagrams and similar small-scale maps.   They’ve developed software called Rapid Responder.   Using this app officials can note the locations of exits, hazardous materials, utility shut-offs, evacuation plans, shelter-in-place locations and much more.    The app and diagram can be used by agencies responding to a school or mall emergency to properly deploy officers and quickly enter the building.   There is the potential for such an app to be connected to the video cameras inside the schools or malls, so the responders could actually see, real-time, what’s happening in the building.

Other Applications

Alex Petit is the former Chief Information Officer for the State of Oklahoma.  John Letchford is the former CIO for Massachusetts.  Both these CIOs deployed technology to support disasters such as the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado and the Boston Marathon bombing.    Here is a smattering of the apps they quickly deployed, “on the fly”, after the disaster:

  • A Pinterest-based app to take photos of prized possessions found in the debris field in the wake of the Moore tornado.   In many cases such possessions were intact but had been carried hundreds of feet or miles from the original home.   The Pinterest app “Owner Connect” allowed people to post photos of the items found on their property so their neighbors could identify and reclaim them.
  •  The Oklahoma Agriculture Department produced an app called “Pet Connect” to do a similar function for lost pets – allow the finders to post photos of the pets so the owners could reclaim them.
  • Donations.  After any disaster, people across the nation are extraordinarily generous with donating food, water, blood, clothing and other material.   The “donor connect” app operated like a bridal registry after the Moore tornado, allowing the Red Cross and others to quickly link the needs for certain items to those which had been donated.
  • Storm shelters.   Some homes in Moore had storm shelters and families went into those shelters before the tornado struck.   But there was so much debris that some of the shelters were jammed shut with debris.   Creating a map of known storm shelters is a potential future app for tornado-and-hurricane-prone areas of the country.
FirstNet

FirstNet

FirstNet

Many of the applications described above require a robust wireless network in order to properly work.   But, after some disasters, many cell sites may be destroyed or run out of power and go off the air.   Hurricane Katrina was possibly the worst example of such lack of wireless networking, but similar problems occurred after Superstorm Sandy and other disasters.

Recognizing this problem, Congress, in 2012, created the First Responder Network Authority and funded it to build a nationwide 4G wireless network for use by responders to both daily incidents and major disasters.    FirstNet is now in the planning stage, but promises to give responders the network they need to support this wide variety of apps which can speed rescue after incidents.

 Will we be ready for the Next One?

Nothing will ease the pain of the survivors and relatives of the Oso Slide.   No technology can produce a time machine to go back and evacuate 100 people from Steelhead Drive in the early morning hours of Saturday, March 22nd.    But we can learn from this disaster.   We can apply existing technology and develop new apps to speed and improve our response to such disasters in the future.    Because these disasters will occur again.   And we need to be better prepared.

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Filed under emergency operations, FirstNet, Seattle Police

– Tech Lessons from the Seattle Snowstorm

Seattle EOC Activated

Seattle EOC Activated

The Seattle area and I just went through a four day snow/ice storm event.  The City of Seattle’s emergency operations center (EOC) was activated and coordinated the City government’s response.  That response received high marks from the public and media for a variety of reasons (see Seattle Times editorial here), including the leadership of Mayor Michael McGinn.

I was able to personally observe that response and lead the technology support of it.   Information technology materially contributed to the improved response, nevertheless I see a number of further potential enhancements using technology .  And that’s the purpose of this blog entry.

GIS GIS GIS (Maps)

Every city, county and state is all about geography and maps.  Maps are the way we deploy resources (think “snowplows”).  Maps are the way we understand what’s happening in our jurisdiction.  Everyone who has lived and traveled inside a city can look on a map and instantly visualize locations – what the “West Seattle bridge” or any other street, infrastructure or geographical feature (think “hill”) looks like.

SDOT Winter Response (Snowplow) Map

SDOT Snowplow Map

For this storm, we have some great mapping tools in place, especially a map which showed which streets had been recently plowed and de-iced.   This map used GPS technology attached to the snowplow trucks.  That same map had links to over 162 real-time traffic cameras so people could see the street conditions and traffic.  (Other cities, like Chicago, have similar maps.)

Electrical Outages Map

Electrical System Outage Map

Another useful map is the electrical utility’s system status map, which shows the exact locations of electrical system outages, the number of outages, the number of customers affected and the estimated restoration times.  This is really useful if you are a customer who is affected – at least you know we’ve received your problem and a crew will be on the way.

What could we do better?  We could put GPS on every City government vehicle and with every City crew and display all that information on a map.   That way we’d immediately know the location of all our resources.  If there was a significant problem – let’s say a downed tree blocking a road or trapping people – we could immediately dispatch the closest resources.  In that case we’d typically dispatch a transportation department tree-clearing crew.  But that crew might have to travel across the City when a parks department crew with the proper equipment might be a block away. 

This same sort of map could show a variety of other information – the location of police and fire units, which streets are closed due to steep hills and ice, where flooding is occurring, blocked storm drains, as well as water system and electrical outages.   This “common operating picture”, across departments, would be enormously useful – as just one example, the fire department needs water to fight fires, and it needs good routes to get its apparatus to the fire and perhaps it would need a snowplow to clear a street as well.

Obviously we wouldn’t want to show all of this information to the public – criminals would have a field day if they knew the location of police units!  But a filtered view certainly could be presented to show the City government in action.

Perceptions and Citizen Contact

A lot of media descended on Seattle this weekPartly that was due to the uniqueness of the storm – it doesn’t snow much in this City.  And perhaps it was a slow news week in the world.  A lot of news crews filmed inside the EOC.  The Mayor and other key department spokespeople were readily available with information.  This is quite important – the television, radio and print/blog media are really important in advising the public on actions they should take (“public transit to commute today, don’t drive”) and actions they should avoid (“don’t use a charcoal grill to cook when you are without power”).  Our joint information center (JIC) was a great success.  

Mayor McGinn’s family even contributed to this – his 11 year old son filmed him in a public service announcement about how to clear a storm drain of snow and ice which is now posted on the Seattle Channel.  

What could we do better?   We need better video conferencing technology, so the Mayor and senior leaders can be reached quickly by news media without sending a crew to the EOC.  This video conferencing would also be quite useful in coordinating action plans between departments with leaders in different locations.   In a larger, regional, disaster, such capability would allow the governor, mayors and county executives to rapidly and easily talk to each other to coordinate their work.  It is much easier for anyone to communicate if they can see the visual cues of others on the call.  

Also, Seattle, like many cities, is a place of many languages and nationalities.   We need to have translators available to get communications out in the languages our residents speak.  This might include a volunteer-staffed translation team but at least could include recording and rapidly distributing written, video and audio/radio public service announcements in multiple languages.

Commuting; Telecommuting

In these emergencies, many people elect to use public transit – buses and trains for commuting.  (I actually took my “boat” – the water taxi – to work twice this week.)  Yet snowstorms are also the times when buses jackknife or get stuck in snowdrifts and going up hills.  

In this emergency, the coordination between the transit agency (“Metro”) and the City was quite improved, because we had people – liaisons – from each agency embedded with the other.   This allowed snowplows to help keep bus routes clear and help clear streets near trapped buses.  

And, with recent technology advances and sorta-broadband networks, many workers can now telecommute.  Seattle had few outages of Internet service this week, although in suburban areas trees and snow brought down not just power lines, but telephone and cable lines as well causing more widespread Internet issues.

What could we do better?  The easiest and most useful advance, I think, would be GPS on every bus and train and water taxi boat.   That, combined with real-time mapping, would allow people to see the location of their rides right on their smartphones.  If we deployed it right, such technology might also show how full the bus is and the locations of stuck buses.  This sort of technology would be useful every day for public transit users – but is especially important during snow emergencies.

Another huge necessity – which I’ve advocated often and loudly – is very high speed fiber broadband networks.   With fiber broadband – and Gigabit (a billion bits per second), two way, telecommuting and tele-education becomes really possible.  Kids could continue their school day with video classes even when schools are closed, you could visit your doctor, and of course citizens would have access to all that emergency information and maps described above, real time and two-way.  I could go on and on about this – and I have – read it here. 

Crowdsourcing and Two-Way Communications, Cell Phones

This area is the most ripe for improved technology to “weather the storm”. 

In any emergency – even a minor disaster like a major fire or a pile-up collision – just obtaining and distributing information early and often will have a significant result in managing the problem.   On-duty at any time, the City of Seattle may have 200 firefighters, 350 police officers and several hundred to several thousand other employees.   Yet we also have 600,000 people in the City, each one of which is a possible source  of information.   How could we get many of them, for example, to tell us the snow and ice conditions in their neighborhoods?   Or perhaps to tell us of problems such as clogged storm drains or stuck vehicles?  The Seattle Times actually did this a bit, crowdsourcing snow depths from Facebook. 

How can we “crowd source” such information?   I’m not exactly sure.  Perhaps we could use Facebook apps or Twitter (although not a lot of people use Twitter).  Two-way text messages are possible.   Any one of these solutions would present a whole mass of data which needs to be processed, tagged for reliability, and then presented as useful analytics.    Eventually, of course, there will be whole armies of remote sensors (“the Internet of things”) to collect and report the information.   Perhaps everyone’s cell phone might eventually be a data collector (yes, yes, I’m well aware of privacy concerns).

In the meantime, we should have some way citizens can sign up for alerts about weather or other problems.   Many such systems exist, such as the GovDelivery-powered one used by King County Transportation.   I’m not aware of such a system being used two-way, to crowd-source information from citizens.   There are also plenty of community-notification or “Reverse 911” systems on the market.  The Federal government is developing CMAS, which would automatically alert every cell phone / mobile device in a certain geographical area about an impending problem or disaster. 

Furthermore, during this Seattle snowstorm, many City of Seattle employees – including police and fire chiefs and department heads, used text messages on commercial cellular networks to communicate with their staff and field units.   This continues a tradition of use of text messaging during emergency operations which first came to prominence during Hurricane Katrina.

All of these solutions depend, of course, on reliable cellular networks.  We know during disasters commercial cellular networks can easily be overloaded (example:  2011 Hurricane Irene), calls dropped and cell sites can drop out of service as power outages occur and backup batteries at the sites run out of juice.   Yet, for people without power or land-line Internet, a smartphone with internet is a potential lifesaver and at least a link to the outside world.  I’d like a way to easily collect this information – privately – from the carriers so emergency managers would know the geographies where mobile networks are impacted. 

This leads me, of course, to my final point – that we need a nationwide public safety wireless broadband networkSuch a network would be built using spectrum the Congress and the FCC have set aside for this purpose.  It would only be used by public safety, although – as our Seattle snowstorm underscored, “public safety” must be used broadly to include utilities, transportation and public works – even building departments.  And it would be high speed and resilient, with 4G wireless technology and backup generators, hardened cell sites. 

These are a few of my thoughts on better management, through technology, of future snowstorms and other disasters, large and small, both daily and once-in-a-lifetime ones.   What have I missed?

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Filed under broadband, disaster, emergency operations, future of technology, Seattle City Light, Seattle Transportation

– S.911: Profiles in Courage

Joe Biden speaks at the White House, Photo by Bill Schrier

Vice President Joe Biden leading the charge

It is fascinating how words and phrases take on difference nuances of meaning depending upon their context. I guess that’s why it is so hard for computers (IBM’s Watson notwithstanding) to understand and properly interpret human speech or, in many cases, writing. Take “911”. In most contexts and for most people, that would be the police/fire emergency number . The number you’d call to get help with a heart attack or a burglary-in-progress or a lost child.

But 9/11 refers to that infamous day when terrorist Osama bin Laden’s gang of terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City.

Now, today, 911 has a new meaning. S.911 is the United States Senate bill sponsored by Senators Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, which allocates additional spectrum and $11.75 billion in funding to build a nationwide interoperable public safety wireless broadband network.

That bill passed out of the Senate Commerce Committee on a vote of 21 to 4 on June 8th.

On June 16th, Vice President Joe Biden and public safety officials from cities and states across the country celebrated this huge step forward on a long road toward building that network. Biden, Attorney General Eric Holder, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and many others called upon the full Senate and House to pass the bill, so the President could sign it this year.

You don’t usually think of Senators as “courageous”, but we have twenty-one really courageous Senators on that Commerce Committee (and a courageous former senator in Vice President Biden).

They faced (and continue to face) a wide variety of pressures:

  • The continuing pain of the Federal budget deficit, which threatens to suck away the almost $12 billion allocated in this bill for public safety.
  • The pressure from some wireless telecommunications companies, who would rather see that spectrum given to them to build more consumer networks;
  • The Federal debt ceiling – which needs to be raised for the economic health of the nation – but many in Congress are holding that rise hostage to force budget cuts;
  • A lack of trust by some in the ability of state and local governments, who some believe cannot be trusted to continue to build out the network. This is ironic, because when anyone telephones 911, it is local police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians who respond.  Furthermore, eight local governments are already building these networks under waivers from the FCC;
  • A need by electric and water utilities, transportation agencies, and other critical infrastructure providers for spectrum to build their own interoperable networks so they can respond to hurricanes, tornadoes, windstorms and earthquakes too – luckily, if S.911 passes Congress, it would modify Federal law and allow these utilities to share the public safety network and spectrum;
  • Oh, did I mention the Federal budget deficit as an as an excuse to NOT giving cops and firefighters and local governments the network they need to keep us all safe?

These are all poor reasons used to justify voting “no” on S.911. Reasons to justify inaction. Reasons to put the safety of 300 million Americans aside.

The campaign to pass S.911 – to fund and build this vital network – is significantly helped by the leadership of President Obama  and Vice-President Biden, who allocated the money in their 2012 budget. The Vice-President is especially active leading the charge to build this nationwide public safety wireless broadband network.  The Administration just issued a report describing the urgent need.

Yes, there is a lot of courage on that Senate Commerce Committee, and hopefully the courage is infectious and spreads to at least the 51 Senators and 217 members of the House needed to pass the legislation.

Because 9/11 is looming again.

9/11/11.

The 10th Anniversary of the terrorism at New York City’s World Trade Center. Where hundreds of firefighters and police officers lost their lives because their radio communications networks didn’t get them the order to evacuate the buildings which were about to collapse.

Will the rest of Congress have the courage to act?

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Filed under 911, emergency operations, Sept. 11th, wireless

– PITS Computing

Fads - click to see larger image

Non-Computing Fads

There are fads and trends in information technology, just like in the world of clothing or hairstyles. One of the latest fads is pie-in-the-sky computing (PITS), otherwise as “cloud computing” or software-as-a-service – SAAS (pronounced as in “sassy”).

But I’ll call it pie-in-the-sky (PITS) computing, just to be different and even a bit contrary.

PITS computing is only the latest in a long line of sea-changes in IT. Electronic data processing (EDP – now there’s an old term) was the very first of these trends, appearing on the scene in the 1950s and 1960s. EDP was a world of punch cards and paper tape. EDP was the era of “glass house” data centers and a computer “priesthood”. Computers were far too expensive and esoteric for normal human beings to comprehend or touch. So there was a “priesthood” of specially anointed and trained computer specialists whose job was the programming, care and feeding of the electronic monsters.

But the development of computing technology continued relentlessly. Along came mainframe computing (green-screen). personal computing, local-area-network computing, client-server computing and Internet or web computing.

Each one of these phases was driven by some significant technological advance. The development of microchips and the Intel 8088 processor, for example, drove the personal computing trend. (Thank you Intel and IBM!) The development of Ethernet standards drove networking which allowed individual computers to talk to each other.

And then computing, of course, became part of the mainstream culture. Any human being in a developed country knows “windows” doesn’t refer to that wonderful device for seeing through walls, the “glass window”, but rather the portal into the world of computers, an operating system developed and marketed by Microsoft. And almost no one thinks of the “web” as a home for spiders or the “net” as a tool for catching fish or butterflies.

In this context, PITS is the latest fad in computing and technology. PITS is driven by the appearance of more-or-less ubiquitous and reliable high speed networking. Networks today, thanks to fiber optic cable, the router/switch revolution (thank you Cisco) and advances in wireless (wi-fi and 3G telecomm networks), are virtually everywhere. Or at least everywhere where human beings live and companies and governments do significant business.

And these networks are reliable. The wired networks almost never go down, although the signal can get weak or strange with wireless. In my house for example, our Wi-Fi network connected to a wired DSL Internet connection has 105 megabits per second of throughput. Yet my commercial telecomm provided cell phone only works at a certain specific spot in the kitchen in front of the microwave!

Most enterprises now operate with giant central servers which store data and applications. At the City of Seattle, for example, we have computer aided dispatch systems which reside on central servers at a “highly secret” police department location. The police data resides there, but cops on the street can access criminal records and license plate information which reside not only in Seattle but also on the other side of the nation or even on another continent.

Our water utility manages pumps and valves and dams and reservoirs across the entire county and up into the Cascade mountains. City Light, our electrical utility, manages an electrical grid which spans the entire state of Washington.

We all routinely use the web to find information and read the news. But we also increasingly use it to store spreadsheets or photos or documents on our own websites or using servers such as Google apps. Microsoft is embracing the trend, with its Office 2010 now available “for free” in a PITS cloud.

So if Microsoft Office can be in a “cloud” somewhere on the Internet, why can’t our payroll system or e-mail system or financial management system be halfway across the State in a data center in Grant County, Washington (next to giant hydroelectric dams to supply the power) or even halfway across the United States, well outside the Seattle earthquake disaster zone?

Of course the applications and data can be almost anywhere. In the past, I’ve been skeptical of PITS / cloud computing because I didn’t trust the networks to stay up in a disaster, and I was concerned about the security of information stored in a non-descript data center in a distant location outside my personal control.

But with today’s reliable networks, the network is not the issue. And major companies like Microsoft or Amazon or Google handle the management and security better than most governments or small businesses. Furthermore, as demonstrated by the World Trade Center disaster, the data could actually reside in multiple different locations around the nation, increasing our ability to withstand a disaster like that 8.0 magnitude earthquake.

It will be a while before we in government embrace PITS, because the loss of control is a big cultural change for governments and many large companies to swallow. Just like people were concerned when their data moved off their desktop computers to a server, and servers moved out of the closet on the same floor to a centralized computer center in the government complex, so it will take us some time to embrace having those computers in an unnamed nondescript but super-secure location, possibly right next to the bunker where Vice-President Dick Cheney hung out after September 11th.

But embrace it we will.

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Filed under disaster, emergency operations, homecity security