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.
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.
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.