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9-1-1 Magazine: Managing Emergency Communications

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Reactive and Proactive

Author: Tim Fuller

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

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How Communication Helped Safeguard Southern California Residents during the Wildfires

By Tim Fuller, CEO, PlantCML

Originally published in our Jan/Feb 2008 issue.

October 20 was no ordinary day for Southern California residents like me. The blue skies and sandy beaches that so often symbolize San Diego were replaced with roaring flames and uncontrollable fear. October 20 was the dawn of the 2007 California wildfires – a nightmare that would last 19 days, spread across 500,000 acres, destroy 1,500 homes, and tragically harm hundreds of people.

While the cause of these fires is still in question, one thing we are 100% sure of is the outstanding response that followed. Thousands of police, fire, and EMS professionals were called to the task, and they came in full force. From different parts of Southern California, these brave men and women moved quickly to tackle the fires, get locals out of harm’s way, and put an end to this nightmare.

Not only did these first responders operate with a common goal, their respective organizations also shared an ally: communication. From coordinating response teams to warning area residents, an effort of this size and scope required communication on several levels and, specifically, in two ways –proactive and reactive.

9-1-1 centers and public safety agencies turned to different technologies to maximize their crisis communications capabilities. While the fires were spreading, these operations used technology to react, dispatching responders to the various disaster sites, and also to proactively warn and evacuate residents, removing them from danger.

Reactive Communication: The Eyes and Ears During Disaster

Public safety answering points (PSAPs) like Confire, a joint power authority that handles fire dispatch and communications for San Bernardino County, are the eyes and ears of a crisis. They are always the first to know and typically become the bearing point, providing direction in the midst of chaos. It is imperative that they react quickly.

In late October, Confire’s communications center began to receive calls from concerned residents who saw unusual smoke in the area. At roughly the same time, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) alerted Confire of the situation – dangerous wildfires were quickly spreading throughout Southern California.

According to Rick Britt, Confire’s communications director, the center experienced a massive spike in call volume as more and more residents noticed the billowing smoke. The center, which has eight dispatchers and two full-time call takers, needed to handle the influx of calls and, at the same time, immediately dispatch multiple agencies to help control the fires. To react quickly and effectively, Confire relied on advanced call center technology to streamline the call-taking and dispatching processes.

Confire used a highly versatile Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) call-handling solution to manage the increased call volume. It is the primary administrative telephone system, in essence, the backbone for the entire center. During this stressful time, it provided Britt’s team with a flexible digital environment for call processing and, more importantly, an unprecedented level of redundancy through backup phone sets.

Confire dispatchers were able to record audio from telephone and radio to play back conversations on the fly as details changed. They could also use the system to keep track of any pertinent notes about a call, such as special circumstances, and save notes in the call record. Finally, the system’s call control feature gave Confire the ability to quickly access common telephony functions, helping them better address the needs of concerned residents.

Additionally, Confire’s center was equipped with a highly flexible, map-centric Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) application that enabled personnel to visually identify and quickly dispatch various units when and where needed. The application’s intuitive information-on-demand interface provided duplicate call detection and displayed multiple incidents, helping streamline Confire’s response efforts. It also provided dispatchers important supplemental details, such as approach instructions, helping protect the safety and well-being of en route first responders.

With its agencies dispatched to the site, Confire formed a unified command with CAL FIRE through which they ordered other necessary resources to help combat the fires. As the wildfires continued to spread, Confire was forced to react to new situations and relay new instructions to its agencies. The dispatch center rapidly gathered and responded as new information came in minute by minute. Confire’s agencies worked side by side with other Southern California first responders to help fight the fires, provide medical attention to injured residents, and assist others in need.

Thanks to the dependability and flexibility of the call center’s infrastructure, Confire was able to communicate quickly and effectively during the wildfire response. As the eyes and ears of San Bernardino, Britt’s team played a pivotal role in controlling and, ultimately, defeating these tragic wildfires.

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Proactive Communication: The Life-Saving Voice of Crisis

Public safety agencies and 9-1-1 centers no longer just react to emergencies; they are now also the voice of warning in situations like the California wildfires. They must alert residents in harm’s way, provide safety instructions, and communicate with them before, during, and after a crisis unfolds. This was never more evident than when the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (SDCSD) used proactive communication to uphold public safety.

SDCSD is the chief law enforcement agency in the county. It is composed of approximately 4,000 employees, both sworn officers and professional support staff, and serves an area of approximately 4,200 square miles. San Diego County was the location of the two biggest fires – the Witch Creek and Harris fires – which burned nearly 300,000 acres from the Mexico border to Northeast San Diego. Officials feared these fires could become even more destructive than the 2003 Cedar fire, the largest wildfire ever recorded in California. With danger on the horizon, San Diego County needed to communicate with hundreds of thousands of people before the fire reached their homes.

SDCSD’s decision to deploy Emergency Notification Technology (ENT) was literally a lifesaver for San Diegans. Using their REVERSE 911{r} system, the operation was able to communicate with over 300,000 residents – effectively handling the largest evacuation in San Diego’s history.

On October 21, SDCSD sent out the first of several notifications to area residents. The department used the system to record and rapidly send voice and text messages to homes and businesses, both with listed and unpublished numbers, based on geographical location. Evacuation instructions were simultaneously delivered to thousands of people, ensuring the information was not only distributed quickly but also accurately without the potential for confusion. Word spread fast. Residents received automated messages containing voluntary and mandatory evacuation orders, directing them safely to sites across the county such as local schools, civic centers, churches, and Qualcomm Stadium – where as many as 10,000 people gathered.

Upon hearing of the communications success of SDCSD, other local public safety operations that did not have their own ENT system called upon the department for help. Shortly thereafter, SDCSD officials were able to tap into the entire county’s notification database, enabling them to send information or instructions to those inside other jurisdictions yet affected by the same hazard.

As the Santa Ana winds continued to spread the fires across Southern California, SDCSD used ENT to adapt and respond as the crisis changed. This was achieved using the system’s Geographic Information System (GIS) interface, which allowed officials to target notifications inside specific areas to proactively warn other once-safe communities that they were now in danger.

According to Captain Mike McNally with SDCSD, the GIS component of the software was extremely effective. As McNally’s team gained information from CAL FIRE, which was predicting the erratic behavior of the fires, they were able to warn new neighborhoods and communities. Rather than alerting an entire area and causing unnecessary panic, SDCSD used the mapping software to notify only those homes and businesses that were believed to be in the direct path of the fire.

It was important for SDCSD to continue this proactive communication even after the fires were contained. For example, drinking water in Ramona (CA) was affected and deemed to be unsafe. SDCSD used ENT to warn residents about these water conditions, instructing people of a boil-water decree. Residents were again called once the water was safe.

ENT is not restricted to community communications. As evidenced by the Southern California wildfires, it is also a highly effective tool for mobilizing first responders and volunteers. The technology is designed to deliver voice and text messages via various devices, including phone, cell, pager, Blackberry{r}, and fax, as well as capture all-important feedback. In this situation, ENT provided public safety agencies with a two-way communications vehicle, allowing organizations to notify, and recipients to respond with their availability, ETA, etc.

By automating the communications with residents and first responders, ENT frees valuable manpower. In the 2003 Cedar fire, SDCSD did not have a mass notification tool and relied on a public address system, the news media, and knocking on doors to evacuate residents. These approaches proved to be far too time-consuming and error prone. This time, ENT enabled the department to focus on other important and more specialized tasks. SDCSD combined traditional approaches with ENT to leverage all their resources and ensure that as many people as possible were alerted.

The end result was an overwhelming success. In total, SDCSD used ENT to distribute 367,000 notifications to residents before, during, and after the wildfires. Reports outlining the results of these notifications provided conclusive, documented details showing who received word and, equally important, who did not.

The 19-day nightmare that swept through Southern California will not soon be forgotten. Tragically, it devastated a pristine area of the country, destroying both lives and property in its path. While the sadness is undeniable, the heroic efforts are immeasurable.

Emergency professionals rose to the challenge to fight the mother of all Goliaths, nature. And, communication – both reactive and proactive – was their weapon of choice. It was the common thread in all their efforts to combat the blazes and protect public safety.

Advanced call-processing technology allowed 9-1-1 centers like Confire to gather the constantly changing details of the wildfires as they spread from town to town. The same technology then enabled these centers to react and dispatch fire units, as well as police and EMS, to help local residents in their time of need.

ENT gave SDCSD and other public safety agencies a voice like never before. Half a million residents received life-saving instructions to flee their homes and head to safe locations. Meanwhile, first responders relied on this same technology to communicate with each other, mobilize teams, and fight the fires with all their might.

Through communication, we saw 9-1-1 and public safety professionals at their very best. As a resident of Southern California, I am thankful. As a public safety professional, I am proud.

Tim Fuller is a veteran public safety professional and president and chief executive officer of PlantCML, the world’s leading provider of emergency response solutions and services for organizations that serve and protect their communities, cities, and countries. Headquartered in Temecula (CA), PlantCML was directly impacted by the 2007 California wildfires. Two PlantCML companies – REVERSE 911{r} and DCC (Dialogic Communications Corporation) – helped thousands of residents evacuate safely. REVERSE 911{r} is a registered trademark of PlantCML.

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