In case of emergency: Share

New tools and standards ease the way for crisis centers to cooperate

A military honor guard carries former President Ford's casket into the House of Representatives at the Capitol in Washington Dec. 30, 2006. WebEOC software helped the city coordinate its efforts by enabling agencies to share information in real time.

BlackStar photos

Notes scribbled onto white
boards, colored pushpins dotting
maps and people yelling
back and forth have often been
the norm for emergency operations
centers during the height
of disasters.

That's all changing now that
emergency management software
is usurping the old, manual
way of doing things, said
Nadia Butler, chief executive
officer of Emergency Services
Integrators, or ESi, which
developed the emergency management
system WebEOC.

"What you find now where
WebEOC is implemented is
they are displaying WebEOC
boards on the wall, replacing
white boards," Butler said.

"We've got [geographic information
system] sections in
WebEOC that replace the maps,
and messaging and sharing of
real-time information replace
the telephone calls and yelling.
What we've heard from several
customers is that they are
amazed how quiet the emergency
center gets once they
fully implement WebEOC."

Besides making emergency
operating centers more orderly,
the management systems help
jurisdictions and agencies handle
crises better and communicate
with one another more

Although the systems have
been around for years, experts
agree there are still plenty of
customers to go after.

"We figure only about 10 percent
of the people who could be
using automated tools are using
them," Butler said. "It's a very,
very new market. We're still
converting people from white
boards and paper."

One of the things that are
helping increase adoption of
emergency management systems
is that the software is
moving away from being noninteroperable
to a more open


Interoperability problems
among radio systems get more
attention, but the same problem
exists in data systems, said
Art Botterell, community warning
system manager at the sheriff's department in Contra
Costa, Calif.

"So WebEOC was interesting,
because it was really one of the
first packages to shift toward
using standardized interfaces,
? in their case, the HTTP
interface," Botterell said. "By
building around that standard,
they kind of let you plug and
play anything that can be
expressed as a Web page into
their product framework."

That kind of openness has
helped the industry flourish.

One of the first big moves
toward openness was the
Common Alerting Protocol, an
Extensible Markup Language
standard designed for exchanging
alerts and warnings among
different systems, such as sirens
and weather radios.

Now it has been applied to
things like sensor data for
chemical and biohazards monitoring
because it is a simple way
to transfer information about

Many of the vendors in the
emergency management arena
formed the Emergency
Interoperability Consortium to
champion interoperable
emergency communications.
The group, for
example, promotes the
development of Web
services and XML data
interoperability standards.

Interoperability standards
are also a mission
of Comcare, a nonprofit
organization dedicated
to advancing emergency

Environmental Support Solutions Inc.'s
ESS Crisis product has
been tested against the
existing standards, said John
Gargett, product manager for
the company, which is based in
Tempe, Ariz.

The product features automated
notifications, task tracking,
spatial information and
more for incident management

The industry seems to be
backing standards, but general
technology trends are also helping
with interoperability,
Gargett said.

"Technology has kind of taken
over that concept with the
increased use of XML, which is
the basis for the Comcare standards,
for example," Gargett
said. "But primarily through
Web services, it has become so
easy in today's world to create
interoperable systems."

If neighboring jurisdictions
have different emergency management
products, and they
want to exchange or access the
same resource files, it can be
done through XML and Web
services. As long as two or more
jurisdictions agree ahead of
time to share information, the
data can be made available during
an emergency.


Other details also need to be
addressed to make the process
work smoothly: Are the files
available for read only? Do
organizations have to log in to
each other's systems? How do
they send the requests?

ESi's WebEOC is, as the
name suggests, Web-based crisis
information management
software. It allows customers to
share information in real time,
and it is configurable by the

"The product can be configured
to match how they do
things rather than having a
process imposed on them by the
software, which is probably one
of its most powerful aspects,"
Butler said.

"We'll find that when we go
back to a user's site after a year
or so, the product at one site
will look completely different
than it does at another customer's
site," she said.

It enables sharing of information,
messaging and posting
and tracking tasks. WebEOC is
licensed on a per-server basis,
and each customer can decide
who has access to the system.

The software is used heavily
in the Washington area. It was
used, for example, to help coordinate
the funeral of former
President Gerald R. Ford.

The company plans to make
the system even more
interoperable in future
versions, Butler said.

"What we're working
on now is a way to link
all of those WebEOC
systems together so
they can all interact,"
Butler said, "so that
you'll have the ability
to share information
across jurisdictions as
openly as people are
willing to."

In the next version
of WebEOC, organizations
will be able to
link to any third-party

So if an organization wants to
link to alerting software, plume
modeling software or somebody
else's crisis information management
software platform,
they will be able to have an
adapter to do that.

That kind of interoperability
is what customers want and is
how most future systems will
likely operate, Botterell said.

"Modular decomposition
fixes the interoperability issue,"
he said. "Where we say, 'OK,
you guys can compete with your
proprietary products, but all we
require is that at certain defined
interfaces, you must utilize an
open standard so we can interoperate
and compete technologies
freely.' "

Staff Writer Doug Beizer can be reached at

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.

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