Government Trends

Local Officials Harness Cloud Capabilities for Emergency Management

Published in State Tech Magazine on April 8, 2021

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From the article, Local Officials Harness Cloud Capabilities for Emergency Management published in the State Tech online magazine by author Tommy Peterson

With a population of roughly 54,000, Colorado’s Eagle County has more than its fair share of emergency management challenges. Covering 1,700 square miles, the county encompasses the Vail ski resort area, small agricultural communities and a vast swath of federal park and forest land. To move vital information across a patchwork of jurisdictions — five fire districts, five police districts, one sheriff’s department, two EMS districts, and two 911 districts — Eagle County’s emergency operations center (EOC) relies on the Google Workspace suite of cloud-based applications. 

“We needed a system to manage information efficiently even when emergencies cross jurisdictional lines, and we have to coordinate with different partners,” says Birch Barron, Eagle County’s director of emergency management. “Google Workspace tools give us the capabilities we need and they’re familiar, intuitive technologies.”

Used effectively, cloud technology can transform critical communications among members of emergency management and response teams, says Bob Bennett, principal of B Squared Civic Solutions, a government sector technology consultancy in Kansas City, Mo.

“Having a common operating picture at a fire site or any emergency is essential, and cloud technologies are very useful for that,” he says. “But technologies are like any tool; you have to resource them carefully, maintain them and train with them. Then you have to figure out how to modify your existing collaborating procedures to the technology.”

Well-defined practices and procedures, supported by the chosen service or application, should be the first consideration in emergency information management, Bennett says. As an example, he cites a client using Microsoft Teams in the Microsoft Azure cloud for its COVID-19 vaccine distribution management. The tool is working well but the client instituted procedures to keep personally identifiable information out of the systems, he says.

“No matter which application a municipality chooses, the procedures used by the staff to standardize operations or version control on docs will drive success or failure,” Bennett says. 

Fire Departments Turn to Software as a Service to Communicate

Using Google Docs, Drive, Chat and Maps, Eagle County has essentially distilled emergency management down to four applications that are mobile, secure and easy for users in various roles to use, says Brandon Williams, the county’s innovation and strategy manager. 

“My job is to make technology effective and invisible so that Birch Barron and his team never worry about technology — they can just focus on coordinating the response to the emergency,” he says.

For each emergency incident, the EOC creates a single Google document, called a situation report, then manages the editing and workflow of the information added into the document while it resides in Drive. Continuously updated and securely accessible anywhere on any device, the situation report enables responders and relevant officials to view the status of the emergency response and to answer questions from the public. The situation report for the massive Grizzly Creek wildfire in 2020 was viewed more than 470,000 times. 

Google Chat provides just-in-time communication during a response, while Maps offers capabilities ranging from three-dimensional views of a wildfire to the graphic representations of threatened infrastructure and resources that guide hazard mitigation, Williams says. 

While Google Workspace tools streamline emergency planning and response, the process of digitizing the information that was previously held in thick three-ring binders was arduous and time-consuming, Barron says. Concerns about security, internet connectivity and loss of local control also had to be addressed to gain crucial buy-in from county leadership. 

An extra benefit of using Google Workspace tools is the link it forges to a larger emergency management community, Williams says.

“In the Google system, everything can be templatized,” he says. “We shared our situation report template, and now it’s available to hundreds of cities and states to download and customize. We start to build on each other. It’s a connector, not just to Googlers but to a larger public sector family.”

Firefighters Exchange Info via Cloud-Based Solutions to Save Time

In 2019, as part of the city’s ongoing pursuit of a smart cities technology strategy, the Henderson Fire Department in Nevada adopted a Cisco Webex cloud-based solution to boost efficiency and communications across its 11 fire stations, says Deputy Fire Chief Scott Vivier. Henderson, located 16 miles southeast of Las Vegas, has a population of more than 320,000. 

“We needed a way to get complicated information quickly to all our stations, which are spread over 106 square miles,” Vivier says. “The Webex system does that for us and provides new capabilities as well.” 

Each HFD employee has a Webex account, which can be used on a personal device. Fire vehicles are equipped with tablets running the cloud software. Cisco desktop hardware and a Webex board — a 70-inch flat-screen monitor that integrates applications and information from various sources — are installed at each fire station.

Before the Webex deployment, the hotwash review immediately after an incident often kept firefighters on the scene to gather information hours after the emergency was resolved, Vivier says. Supervising officers then drove to all the stations involved in the incident for meetings to discuss lessons learned, a process that could take days. Using Webex, information is gathered in real time during and immediately after the incident, then shared electronically with the responding stations. The system has provided similar savings in travel time for training sessions and regular meetings.

“We’re seeing a return on investment just on the time saved by people having to not travel from station to station,” he says. “The system also gives us access to more information than we had before.”

With Cisco Webex, the view from a camera-enabled drone hovering over the scene of an emergency can now be shared from the operator’s tablet with the incident command and the EOC. Firefighters in the field can instantly pull up critical information from the EOC as well, Vivier says.

“We’re more efficient with this system but, more important, because of this technology we’re finding tremendous benefits in emergencies and saving lives,” he says.

Cloud Solutions Cover Agencies with Compliant Procedures

For Iowa’s Cedar Rapids Fire Department, the launch to the cloud was driven by state and federal reporting regulations and the need for a records management system that supported better information sharing, says District Chief Curtis Walser. In 2019, the CRFD replaced its existing on-premises records management system with a service from Emergency Reporting, which provides emergency response applications from the Microsoft Azure cloud. Cedar Rapids, located in eastern Iowa, has a population of approximately 133,000 served by nine fire stations.

“We have to be able to report both fire and medical emergencies to appropriate government agencies using their standards,” Walser says.

The CRFD’s previous in-house system was not compliant with the National Emergency Medical Services Information System, which the state of Iowa requires for reporting emergency medical response data. The cloud solution complies with both National Fire Incident Reporting System 5.0 and NEMSIS 3 Data Standard, Walser says.

The Emergency Reporting RMS is accessible from anywhere on various devices, and because it’s delivered in the cloud it provides easy scalability and new capabilities such as report generation, real-time analytics and apparatus and equipment tracking.

“With a cloud service, we don’t have to maintain extra hardware — we can use any device with an internet connection — and we don’t have to have the personnel to maintain the hardware,” Walser says. “If our footprint changes out in the field during an incident, it’s no problem because of our connection to the cloud and the flexibility that gives us.”

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