New communication tool enhances incident management and situational awareness

At least 255 emergency management agencies in California and a few other areas have been experimenting with and in some cases using a new tool that provides enhanced situational awareness for incident managers. Called Next-Generation Incident Command System (NICS), the developers describe it as “a mobile web-based command and control environment for dynamically escalating incidents from first alarm to extreme-scale that facilitates collaboration across [multiple] levels of preparedness, planning, response, and recovery for all-risk/all-hazard events.” It is a combination of tools, technologies, and an innovative concept of operations for emergency response.

NICS is called “technology for the tired, dirty and hungry — dirt simple to learn and dirt simple to use”. It was conceived, envisioned, and functionally specified by experienced first responders, many from the California emergency response community, and developed by skilled scientists and engineers at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, a government facility on Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts. The software and electronic data are being hosted at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, thanks to a monetary appropriation from the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, but NICS can be hosted anywhere and with a minimum of gear — even on a well equipped laptop.

The development of the project has been funded by the federal Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, but that source is scheduled to end October 31, 2014. The two people primarily involved in outreach to the emergency response community, and who are working on finding funding for the next 5-year increment, are retired Chief Bob Toups and Dr. Jack Thorpe.

NICS is “technology neutral.” It can be used on computers as well as tablets and hand-held devices. It is compatible with Windows, iOS, Linux, Android, and the web browsers Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and later versions of Internet Explorer.

Uses of NICS

NICS graphic.

Maps can be created by firefighters on scene in a matter of minutes, which are then immediately viewable by anyone who has access to that incident on a computer or hand-held device with internet connectivity. The maps can show an incident perimeter, staging areas, evacuation zones, road blocks, division breaks, and symbology commonly used on incident maps.

The information can be accessed not only by firefighters on site and in command centers, but by law enforcement officials responsible for evacuation and anyone else on a need to know basis.

One of the limitations of the system is that it communicates via the internet. If firefighters in a remote location do not have internet access from their cell phone or computer, or via a satellite connection, they can’t send or receive the information. However, this should not be a problem for higher level managers in offices who also have a need to create and share information about the incident. And, mobile cell sites, commonly called a Cell on Wheels, or COW, are increasingly available and should be deployed automatically to large incidents that have poor cell coverage.

The best way to get a feeling of how the system works and what it can do is to view the very well done 9-minute video which is embedded below. A .pdf presentation document about NICS can be found HERE.

NICS has been in development since 2007 and in 2010 was first utilized by agencies in southern California. Last year it was used on 102 incidents in the state. It was also in use during the 2013 Boston Marathon assisting in managing the event and tracking the 26,000 runners, and continued to be utilized after the bombing.

NICS can display the near real time location of emergency resources using Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) and/or Position Location Information (PLI) technologies. Tracking can be either cellar or satellite-based. Currently some agencies that use Delorme InReach satellite-based tracking devices can see where their resources and personnel are located. Several other tracking devices are compatible with the system as well. Mr. Toups and Mr. Thorpe told us that if an appropriate software backend was written, other tracking devices could be integrated also. It is possible that the 6,000 tracking devices recently purchased by the U.S. Forest Service could be used within NICS.

NICS incidents in 2013

NICS incidents in California in 2013. NICS graphic. (click to enlarge)

While NICS will not solve every problem a firefighter or other emergency responder has, it can add a significant level of situational awareness for personnel on the sharp end of the spear as well as those in remote offices who have to make decisions related to the incident. One chief put it this way: “We are able to compress the time of developing our situational awareness from 12 hours to 12 minutes.”

Being aware of the near real time location of firefighters is half of what we call the Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety. The other half is knowing the real time location of a wildfire. Some near real time fire mapping is currently being done with NICS in California — if that ever routinely becomes part of NICS and is commonly available nationwide, it will reduce fatalities.

Mr. Toups and Mr. Thorpe call the development of NICS about 20 percent complete. They have plans to continue to make improvements and to add features. Most of the additions will be from the emergency response community: Everyone is encouraged to develop apps that can plug-and-play into the basic NICS architecture, just like other apps developed for smart phones and tablets.

To date NICS is primarily being used by state and local agencies in California. The federal wildland fire agencies are not using the system.

The person that gets credit for choosing the name, Next-Generation Incident Command System, is Jose A. Vazquez, a Special Assistant for First Responder Technologies with the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate — the organization that supplied four years of funding to develop the system.

Our only criticism is that unfortunate choice — the name, Next Generation Incident Command System. It implies that ICS is being thrown out and replaced. But NICS is a communications tool, infrastructure that works within the ICS or the National Incident Command System, and will not replace, but will enhance, ICS. Most products named next-generation, such as the next-generation air tankers, are intended to immediately or eventually replace older versions.

NICS is provided at no cost to all emergency response organizations. It is an open community, open standards, shared project. No vendor has any claim to its intellectual property. It belongs to the community. For more information contact Bob Toups, cdfbob at gmail.com, or Jack Thorpe,  jack at thorpe.net.

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About Bill Gabbert

Wildland fire has been a major part of Bill Gabbert’s life for several decades. After growing up in the south, he migrated to southern California where he lived for 20 years, working as a wildland firefighter. Later he took his affinity for firefighting to Indiana and eventually the Black Hills of South Dakota where he was the Fire Management Officer for a group of seven national parks. Today he is the creator and owner of WildfireToday.com and Sagacity Wildfire Services and serves as an expert witness in wildland fire. If you are interested in wildland fire, welcome… grab a cup of coffee and put your feet up. Google+

6 thoughts on “New communication tool enhances incident management and situational awareness

  1. This technology has been great for our effectiveness during emergency planning and during incidents. It has provided information that was critical to our first responders and command staff. This information has saved time, money and made us extremely efficient at providing life intelligence to all our cooperating agencies during incident for 3 years.
    NICS has also given us the ability to load pre-planning information specific to our response area. From wildland fires, ocean rescue, and tsunami events, to nuclear power plant and earthquake disaster exercises. The ability to load critical GIS data in the field, during the events has enabled us to quickly brief cooperating agencies, ground units and regional planning staff with only a push of a button.
    The development staff has been super responsive and often improving performance needs of the program during the event on a 24 hour support schedule. NICS has not only improved safety of our firefighter but also the public we serve, and done it all for free.

    Greg Alex
    Fire Captain / Pre-Fire Engineer
    CAL FIRE / San Luis Obispo County Fire

  2. Remarkeable technology. I can see a point very quickly where there will be a tablet in the I.A. helicopter with updated size up information being loaded once on scene. It is going to be important to have a two man crew or the information overload to the pilot is going to be an issue.
    I heard the tone out and my heart rate went up, a very good video!

  3. Technology IS wonderful and potentially helpful, but remember that there are still hundreds if not thousands of departments in the US that don’t have wildland PPE; don’t have training in even the basics of wildfire suppression and LCES; don’t yet have compatible radio systems; and don’t have the financial resources/political will to get any of these issues resolved in hte foreseeable future. I don’t mean to sound negative, but I see wildland fire becoming a world of “haves and have-nots”, but the fires don’t know the difference.

  4. this looks like a really usefull tool. here in south africa we can really do with development like that specially on the bigger wildfires.
    I will definitely keep an eye this development

  5. The article says funding ends 10/14, what is going to happen to this after that? Looking for a solution for a situation awareness tool like mission manager without the $$$ for a non-profit organization that is supporting the public with amateur radio communications during regular times and disasters. Sounds like a very robust tool from reading the article.

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