U.S. Mayor Article

Technology Provides Innovative Emergency Preparedness Tools

By Mayor Bill Baarsma, City of Tacoma, Washington
January 14, 2002


In the wake of the horrific events of September 11th and acts of ultra violence in our schools across the nation, public safety and emergency preparedness planning have taken center stage among public and private decision-makers alike.

And rightfully so. As a public official, one of my most important duties is protecting the well being of my constituents in conjunction with the city's law enforcement, fire and emergency services departments. Of course, planning surrounding emergency preparedness is vitally important. But as September 11th taught us, the way in which we must plan for emergency events has shifted drastically. As Peter LaPorte, director of the Washington, DC, Emergency Management Agency said in a "Washington Post" article concerning community emergency response plans, "The day has changed. There is a different preparedness level that we need to be in...we need to plan, block by block."

In this new era, we as government officials must take the lead in providing our first responders with the tools they need to act quickly, safely and decisively during any emergency situation. One of these tools is technology. The ability through the Internet to access and organize data has brought with it new opportunities to protect people and property "block by block." Using the Internet, better, faster access to information during a crisis can reduce the danger to our children, our neighbors, our co-workers, and our emergency response personnel.

This type of technology is in use now by the City of Tacoma. The product, known as Responder, is a Web-based emergency response solution that allows police, fire and emergency personnel to access and analyze critical information (such as floor plans, photos, utility shut-off locations) about government facilities, commercial buildings, and any site frequented by large groups of people via a wireless Internet connection and a laptop computer. The product also allows emergency responders to create incident command and control plans and communicate in real time between local, state and Federal agencies on a regional or national basis via a secure Internet connection.

A prototype of the Responder product was initially developed by Pierce County, Washington. In a joint public-private venture, the county teamed up with local security application company Prepared Response, Inc. The Company has since redeveloped the product, and is now licensing its Rapid Responder product to a variety of municipalities and government jurisdictions. Rapid Responder is a software system that uses existing Internet and computer technology to provide multi-agency first responders with instant vehicle-mounted laptop and desktop computer access to:

  • On-line mapping and directions to specific emergent incidents.
  • Building floor plans and blueprints.
  • Digital interior, exterior site photos to disseminate on-site.
  • Incident plans and logistical information (including site evacuation plans in the event of violence or natural disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, etc.).
  • Utilizes the Incident Command System (ICS)
  • Local, regional and national real time communication via secure connection.
  • Emergency contact information.
  • Hazardous materials database (including handling and exposure treatment protocols).
  • Hospitals and other medical services regarding patient condition and bed availability for small and mass casualty events.
  • "Collapse zone" assessments around major structures to help protect responders and citizens.
  • "Pre-incident" fire planning as required by local and state laws.

Clearly, immediate access to this type of information can help emergency responders quickly contain and mitigate life- and property-threatening incidents. In fact, an early version of the Responder product was instrumental in containing an incident at a local high school in which a live hand grenade was found in a locker. From floor plans and digital photos available through Responder, our Bomb Squad was able to pinpoint the grenade's location and determine that their bomb disposal robot could access the location.

State of Washington officials appear to agree that the longer it takes to know critical facts about an emergency situation, the more lives might be at stake. The Washington State Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) have signed a license to implement PRI's Rapid Responder throughout the entire state over the next two years, beginning with the region's three most populated counties. This license allows state officials to upload important emergency data about any public facility, government building or school onto a secure network, where it can be accessed by authorized public safety personnel 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

We are proud to be among the first cities in the nation to use technology such as the Responder product to protect our citizens and our emergency responders. And, we are proud to be home to Prepared Response, which is developing the types of tools that will help both public and private sector decision-makers better prepare for the unexpected.

While the environment in which we must plan for emergencies has changed, our mandate to protect the public has not. Using all the tools at our disposal, including technology, will help us meet this crucial mandate.

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