Information Requirements for Crisis Response – A Radio Perspective

I take the position that differing and contradictory viewpoints or perspectives help shed light on the many gaps and issues the industry faces. As such, I invited Terry Canning to provide a guest post in response to my recent post on redefining information requirements for disaster response. The views expressed are his own. We welcome your thoughts in the comments below!

A couple of weeks ago Brandon wrote a thoughtful and thought-provoking blog describing how the information requirements for successful crisis response is being redefined.  He opened with “Developing information requirements for crisis response is a tedious and flawed process filled with many uncertainties…”  In a reply, I agreed with his postulation that it can be a tedious process (although I proposed fastidious rather than tedious) but disagreed that it is flawed.  Brandon then challenged me to write a response to fully explain my position on this issue – and I have accepted.

To put my comments in perspective I have been a volunteer fire fighter for over 35 years and a chief officer for 15 of those years, having retired in December of 2013.  For the past 16 years I have been engaged as a radio communications consultant with the Province of Nova Scotia, Canada, where I was responsible for coordinating emergency communications.  My role also included ensuring radio interoperability for twelve provincial government departments, two regional municipalities, four federal government departments, several NGO’s with public safety roles, the provincial police service (RCMP) and 285 volunteer fire departments. The volunteer fire service encompasses over 9000 volunteer fire fighters.  All of these users share a common, single 700 MHz, province-wide trunked radio system, operating at 86 sites.  My focus on the radio ‘tool’ is intentional, as that is my background and strength; there are certainly other tools that contribute to success. 

In order to achieve full situational awareness (the ultimate objective of gathering, storing and sharing information) for crisis response, all engaged response parties must be able to communicate directly with all others in real time, as required, and as authorized.  This is the foundation of the successes realized by the many agencies and orders of government utilizing the second generation trunked mobile radio system in Nova Scotia.  Rather than competing for limited precious radio spectrum and even more elusive capital funding, an attitude of cooperation and system resource sharing has created a model for information sharing and universal situational awareness.

This may seem to be only moderately related to the topic of redefining information requirements for crisis response, however my point is that with real time interagency communications using the one-to-many capability of two-way radio, there is much less need to gather and store information.  Instead my suggestion is that the parties with the information essential for an effective crisis response be brought directly into the picture utilizing the radio system – thus every stakeholder is aware of all pieces of the puzzle.

The Nova Scotia approach has resulted in much less time defining requirements and dramatically more accurate and timely information during a response. There are basically three components employed in the Nova Scotia model:

1) A process of post incident analysis

Engage all incident stakeholders to perform a thorough, frank and inclusive debriefing after every significant multi-agency incident, and, ensure the learnings from these analyses are incorporated into go-forward response plans.  Of course each of the typical incident response agencies maintains their own standard procedures and protocols, but they are developed and refined in light of the information gathered from the analysis and debriefing process. 

2) A stakeholder interoperability lessons learned forum

To emphasize the positive learnings, the province hosts an annual Interoperability Forum, attended by key agency representatives, where incidents of the previous year are reviewed and discussed from a communications perspective and the attendees are invited to interact and learn with and from their counterparts. 

3) A formal interoperability advisory group

The Radio Interoperability Nova Scotia Advisory Council (RINSAC) is made up of designated municipal, provincial and federal agency representatives to consider, vet and advise on government initiatives to optimize the provincial radio system.  RINSAC members may also present proposals from constituent users to the provincial radio authority for consideration.  Through these three channels, a suite of best practices and most effective information sharing approaches are developed.

I fully endorse Brandon’s categorization of the three types of information surrounding crisis response and his assertion that they are types, not levels of information.  It is impossible to accurately predict which party will require what piece(s) of information at any particular point in time during a response. Thus, a fully interoperable radio communications system encompassing all stakeholders, is key to ensuring those who hold required information can promptly and accurately communicate it to those who need it during a crisis response. As a result, the requirements for pre-incident information collection and storage is reduced, eliminating noncurrent information and minimizing inaccurate information. 

A Radio Case Study

From my perspective, the responses to significant crises situations involving multiple agencies almost always have ineffective, underutilized, or non-existent interoperable voice communications paths or protocols amongst responders, resulting in much less efficacy in the crisis response. The penultimate objective of information management must be to overcome the information vacuum (or at least the gaps) that accompanies many crises situations. The advent of the Nova Scotia shared Trunked Mobile Radio system has resulted in less post-incident debriefings that that point to ‘communications’ as being the biggest failure in the response – a huge achievement.

Obviously there are other approaches to glean and share crisis response information, but I would argue that there are probably no better or more effective, or more timely methods, than the use of system wide, shared talkgroups.  Every one of the almost 10,000 radios on the Nova Scotia provincial system is required to have the standard suite of interoperability talkgroups: eight provincial ‘mutual aid’ talkgroups and two interprovincial ‘mutual aid’ talkgroups shared with users in the neighbouring provinces of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.   

The other key ingredient to effectively sharing timely and accurate information during a crisis response is regular and repeated user training.  Radio user training in Nova Scotia is provided by a dedicated provincial trainer who provides training directly to the users, or disseminates knowledge through a ’Train the Trainer’ approach.  All too frequently when shared radio systems are implemented, user training is provided to familiarize the users with their new ‘tools’ and technology, but post implementation, training programs are eliminated or dramatically down-sized.  Experience would suggest that with the rate of turn-over of emergency response personnel (particularly in the volunteer sector) an ongoing training and refresher program, including table-top exercises, is of critical importance. 

A very valuable educational ‘tool’ has been the development of a communications module attached to the ICS 200 program.  This module takes about 25-30 minutes to deliver and helps the command level responder to focus on aspects of communications that is – or should be - of most concern to her/him.  It emphasizes the shared nature of the trunking system, the range of agencies that use it, and the established methods of ensuring all potentially involved users are aware of the shared talkgroup assignment and its purpose.

To quote Brandon again, “We are doing ourselves a disservice if we focus on predictable information needs in an environment where the most valuable information is unpredictable!”  I fully agree with this premise, and suggest that rather than struggling to gather, store, then quickly share information in response to the unknown, unexpected or unprecedented crisis, we do ourselves a much greater service by making the effort to develop cooperative, collaborative, shared radio communications systems and policies that enable real-time sharing of any information relevant to any response party engaged in the crisis.  

Comment

Terry Canning

In 2000 I drew on my experience in the volunteer fire service to jump into the radio communications field, contracting to the Province of Nova Scotia on their Trunked Mobile Radio System implementation project. That turned into a 15 year relationship during which I acted as the Provincial Interoperability Coordinator as well as the Emergency Communications Coordinator. I represented Nova Scotia on the FPT Interoperability Working Group and participated in CITIG workshops since its inception.