The Middle Gelderland Emergency Service Region provides comprehensive emergency assistance to the citizens of eastern Netherlands. The disaster-response team was challenged by information systems that were difficult to use and suffered from inconsistent connectivity and response times that were below target levels. The agency collaborated with Microsoft® Certified Partner Geodan to develop Eagle Suite, an IT solution based on Microsoft Office Groove® 2007, Microsoft Bing™ Maps for Enterprise (formerly Virtual Earth™), Microsoft Office SharePoint® Server, and ESRI ArcGIS geographical data. With Eagle Suite, the Emergency Service Region now integrates geographical, textual, and visual information in a single view and Command Center meeting times have been reduced by more than 30 percent.
|Eagle Suite Map|
The Middle Gelderland region of the eastern Netherlands is home to approximately 700,000 residents living in 16 municipalities. The Middle Gelderland Emergency Service Region is an agency that provides comprehensive emergency assistance to the entire area. With more than 1,000 employees, the Emergency Service Region oversees Middle Gelderland’s fire brigades, ambulance crews, police and public-health services, as well as providing disaster-response services for floods and forest fires.
Like many emergency-response agencies around the world, the Middle Gelderland Emergency Service Region is required to coordinate operations with several other organizations in the event of a disaster. It maintains frequent communications with the Ministry of Defense and Homeland Security, as well as regional agencies responsible for law enforcement, highway maintenance, and water management.
In emergency-response situations, every minute is critical, and coordinating multiple agencies quickly is essential to a fast and effective operation. However, the information systems used by the Emergency Service Region often created frustrations for emergency-response staff. “Our command-and-control communications systems were Internet-based,” says Stefan Diehl, Program Manager for the Middle Gelderland Emergency Service Region. “While they functioned most of the time, they required consistent broadband connectivity. Since stable Internet connections are not always available in disaster-management operations, particularly in field locations, we would frequently face delays in sharing important information among response teams.”
The disaster-response systems were also challenging for the agency’s staff members to use, which presented additional challenges. Says Diehl, “We had an open-source application that was designed specifically for disaster-response operations. However, since real disasters only happen
||I estimate that the Eagle Suite has allowed us to cut 20 minutes off each 60-minute status meeting, which lets us take action that much faster.
||Stefan Diehl Program Manager
Middle Gelderland Emergency Service Region
occasionally, most staff members didn’t use the system frequently enough to become familiar with it, meaning they had difficulty using it when they needed to. The application didn’t have a familiar user interface, leading to further unease for staff members who needed to collaborate in a crisis. In addition, since it was specifically designed for disaster response, the application wasn’t flexible enough to be used in routine operations such as fire-truck dispatch or routing.”
Even when communications channels were open, the nature of information sharing was often slower than required for an effective operation. Diehl describes a typical disaster-management scenario: “A field officer at an emergency site would prepare a situation report on a laptop with standard word-processing software. That report would be sent by fax or e-mail to the coordination center, where it would be translated into operational language for government officials to review. The revised report would then be sent by fax or e-mail to the mayor’s office, and the mayor would respond to it. Using that kind of sequential communication, it could take hours to make time-sensitive decisions.”
Not satisfied with its current technology, the Emergency Service Region embarked on an effort to develop a new IT solution that would help it respond as quickly and effectively as possible to any disaster, while enhancing functionality for day-to-day responsibilities. Agency staff identified several requirements of any new system:
- Situational awareness—The ability to inform all participating organizations of important disaster-area details, such as geographic boundaries and location of hazardous objects, displayed in a Geographic Information System (GIS).
- Real-time location awareness—The ability to monitor the locations of staff, citizens, response teams, and equipment.
- Interdisciplinary collaboration—Smooth communication and workflow among multiple organizations at disaster sites, command centers, and resource centers.
Broad applicability—Common functionality for disaster management and routine operations so that staff are equipped to manage small incidents that escalate into disasters.
- Offline functionality—The ability to operate in unstable network conditions by ensuring alternative access to data and providing redundant backup protocols.
- Data availability—Easy access to multiple data sources such as road maps, meteorological data, and operational information.
- Intelligence—Possibility to quickly analyze data to determine the amount of people or dangerous objects in a disaster area.
For assistance with developing its custom solution, the Emergency Service Region engaged Geodan, an Amsterdam-based Microsoft® Certified Partner specializing in IT solutions that ensure management and availability of geo-information. Geodan also provides a range of mobile applications, which was important to the Emergency Service Region because of the potential to use integrated devices in fire trucks and ambulances.
Geodan worked with the Emergency Service Region for several months to develop the Eagle Suite, a new emergency-management solution with all of the functionality that the Emergency Service Region requires.
The Eagle Suite uses Microsoft Office Groove® 2007 collaboration software to integrate emergency-management information from multiple sources. The data is displayed on Microsoft Bing™ Maps (formerly Virtual Earth™) and integrated in a Microsoft Office SharePoint® Server portal that highlights textual and ArcGIS data from Microsoft Gold Certified Partner ESRI. Utilizing the Microsoft Single View Platform, a data visualization solution that uses Bing Maps technology, Eagle Suite shows geospatial and operational data in a single bird's-eye view, allowing users to navigate multiple layers of information (Figure 1).
The project to develop the Eagle Suite began in mid 2007, and the Emergency Service Region began deploying the new solution in early 2008. Eagle Suite consists of several modules:
- Eagle Command Center provides a place for command center staff to share and edit both geographical data and text. The main visual element is a map showing the geography of the disaster area. Eagle includes functionality to edit both spatial data (such as incident locations or the extent of a poisonous cloud) and textual data on a variety of relevant subjects. It also has functions for data analysis, messaging, and issuing orders to field staff.
- Eagle Mobile gives field staff the ability to add and edit geographical and textual data over a mobile connection and see the position of other field staff on the map. It also gives the Command Center staff this option, plus the possibility to give them orders to go to a certain point. As with Eagle Command Center, textual and spatial information is exchanged automatically. Other relevant functionality is available depending on the role of field staff.
- Eagle Surface is based on a Microsoft Surface™ table device, and is utilized as a conference tool for tactical or strategic command. Using its touch-screen interface, staff can navigate the map to view the current situation and issue commands by pressing their finger at a location on the map.
- Eagle Wall displays a read-only view of the incident status (or “Common Operational Picture”) on a wall-mounted display in the physical command center. The display is updated automatically as status changes occur.
- Eagle Live posts a publicly available subset of the Common Operational Picture online as a read-only view displayed on a Bing map. It displays up-to-date, screened incident information, including alerts posted by staff.
- Eagle Playback is a user-friendly playback tool for the command center, with which the incident can be analyzed minute by minute for evaluation purposes, during and after the incident.
The Emergency Service Region is now in the midst of a broad deployment of the Eagle Suite. The solution has been deployed in all 16 municipalities as well as the regional disaster-coordination center. In addition, Eagle Mobile has been deployed in 60 emergency vehicles, with plans to install an Eagle Mobile device in every firefighting vehicle and ambulance in the region.
|Eagle Suite Map|
Deploying the Eagle Suite is helping the Middle Gelderland Emergency Service Region to reduce its emergency response time by speeding team collaboration and operating more efficiently. Large-scale disaster simulations utilizing the Eagle Suite have been so successful that the new IT solution was given a major public-safety award in 2008.
Easier Collaboration, Faster Incident Response
“In general, all of our staff members are exchanging essential information much faster than when we were using the prior technology,” says Diehl. “Plus, we have more information with which to make decisions. The suite’s Common Operational Picture integrates water-supply information, traffic flows, weather patterns, locations of retirement housing, and more—all displayed in real time on a single geographical interface.”
“Before using the Eagle Suite, our disaster-response meetings would take much longer because each individual would need to take a turn informing the group of new developments. With Eagle Command Center, all that information can be input simultaneously in advance of a meeting. Plus, the meetings are quieter because people don’t need to make mobile phone calls to retrieve information from field staff; the people in the field simply send them the data on their Eagle Mobile devices. I estimate that the Eagle Suite has allowed us to cut 20 minutes off each 60-minute status meeting, which lets us take action that much faster,” says Diehl.
Data Visualization for Better Insight
By using technology with Bing Maps for Enterprise, the Emergency Service Region is benefiting from high-resolution mapping imagery that serves as the backdrop for incident data. The ability to view this data within the context of location improves situational awareness, allowing the agency to better visualize and understand data, and act in a more timely fashion.
||We use the Eagle Suite for lots of functions that we weren’t able to efficiently manage before... Because we use it on a daily basis, we have confidence that our people will be able to use it in an emergency situation.
Middle Gelderland Emergency Service Region
Additionally, because the imagery is hosted and serviced by Microsoft, the need to build out infrastructure and acquire datasets is reduced, resulting in a lower overall cost to the Middle Gelderland Emergency Service Region and the taxpayers.
Smoother Operations, Added Functionality
With the Eagle Suite, the Emergency Service Region is expanding the number of daily activities that can be managed with integrated technology. Says Diehl, “We use the Eagle Suite for lots of functions that we weren’t able to efficiently manage before. For example, we monitor the operating condition of fire hydrants and integrate that information into the Bing maps. We store plans of large buildings so we can have a route map in the event of a fire. We use Eagle Mobile to dispatch an ambulance or a fire truck. Because we use it on a daily basis, we have confidence that our people will be able to use it in an emergency situation.” The agency is also using the Eagle Suite to generate safety materials for the public, such as maps of hazardous chemical sites.
The Emergency Service Region is also taking advantage of the unique online/offline functionality of Office Groove 2007. “It was important that the Eagle Suite be designed to function well under all conditions, particularly when there is no communications network available. With Groove, we have that capability built-in, and it is working well,” says Diehl.
Faster Adoption Thanks to Ease of Use
User familiarity was also a factor in selecting a Microsoft-based solution. “Most of our staff use the Microsoft Office suite either at work or at home, so they are comfortable with the look and feel of Office products. We believe this helps their comfort level with learning and using the new technology,” says Diehl.
“The application is very user-friendly,” he continues. “Last week, we had a forest-fire exercise, and we had a new team member who had never used Eagle Suite before. I gave him a short 10-minute introduction, and he had no problems.”
The use of Microsoft technologies also has made it possible for the agency to include a broader group of personnel in the Eagle Suite program. “Since our prior system was oriented towards disaster management, we would only allow system access to the fire department, police, and ambulance services. Using Groove 2007, we can invite anyone, regardless of their role—even members of the general public,” says Diehl. In addition, users can more easily update their Microsoft software configuration than they could an open-source solution.
Proven in Disaster Simulation Test, Passing with Flying Colors
In November 2008, less than a year after its initial deployment, the Eagle Suite was put to the test in a large-scale emergency simulation. Ten Dutch public-safety organizations, including the Middle Gelderland Emergency Service Region, participated in a week-long live exercise named Waterproof. The exercise included a flood simulation in Flevoland, an area of reclaimed land in the central part of the Netherlands. Flevoland is protected by dikes due to its mean surface elevation of four meters below sea level; in the event of a dike failure, it would be inundated immediately, which would be catastrophic for its 380,000 inhabitants.
The flood-response exercise included fire engines, helicopters, ambulances, and simulated casualties and stranded animals. The Eagle Suite was deployed to help manage communication and collaboration among the emergency responders. All staff were issued a GPS device and a mobile tablet computer with Eagle Mobile installed. The command center deployed Eagle applications both on desktops and projected on a wall-mounted display. Geographical information, such as staff locations and inundation boundaries, was exchanged automatically among the field staff and command center.
Everyone involved in the disaster-response exercise could view the Common Operational Picture at any time. In the command center, the different organizations were able to make the necessary strategic decisions quickly and effectively using the Eagle Suite. Based on the success of this and other exercises, Eagle was awarded the Dutch Public Safety Award 2008. (See www.veiligheidaward.nl for more information about the award.)
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