Industry Players Test Data Interoperability in Northern California
Wednesday, June 29, 2011 | Comments
Photo courtesy Orange Photography
 
 
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) hosted a disaster management workshop and emergency vehicle rally in partnership with the California Fire Chiefs and California Emergency Management in Silicon Valley. The workshop offered everything from education to high-end technology for participating community practitioners.
 
At the heart of the two-day meeting was Plugfest, an event focused on data interoperability with emergency vehicles. “I approached Plugfest wanting to find out what the story is in the disaster management domain,” said Steven Ray, a distinguished fellow at CMU who led the event.
 
Ray spent 27 years working on information exchange standards for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) before relocating to the Bay Area two years ago. Coming in with a data standards background, Ray and others at CMU started several research programs, one focusing on disaster management, the Disaster Management Initiative (DMI), and one focusing on smart grids.
 
DMI focuses on three goals: technology development, community engagement and solutions development, said Martin Griss, director of CMU Silicon Valley and associate dean of the College of Engineering.
 
Plugfest involved 11 challenges that the 40 participating emergency vehicles were asked to perform in a given time period, ranging from simple to larger, more involved applications. Simple questions included sending emails to other vehicles and printing on a remote printer. More complex tasks involved acting as a database query server, and capturing and streaming video over the Internet. The complete list of tasks is viewable here. The goal of the exercise was to determine a baseline of emergency responders’ vehicle capabilities.
 
All 40 vehicles could complete the most basic questions, but as the tasks shifted to delivering data, there was a large fallout. “When we asked if you could run a web server on your vehicle, we started weeding out vehicles quickly,” Ray said. Only a handful of participants completed all 11 tasks in the 2-hour time allotted. “What I encountered was not at all what I had expected,” Ray said.
 
The event also served as an education opportunity for responders to see what is possible and what their counterparts can do, because many of the participating practitioners work together in times of disaster.
 
A few key issues were immediately recognized. One was training; many participants were unaware of their vehicles’ capabilities. Another issue was policy. “[The problem] was a combination of technology and policy, which was an unexpected finding,” Ray said. “We found a couple examples where it’s not the technology but policy that’s holding them back.”
 
For example, many of the police vehicles had restrictions put in place by administrators that wouldn’t allow information to be shared. They couldn’t give other responders, such as fire trucks, unlimited access to their networks.
 
“Some law-enforcement officers said, ‘Well we could [share information] but we’re not allowed to or we would lose our security clearance,’ ” Ray said. “They were able to help, but because of policy, they couldn’t, which raises some issues.”
 
To deal with the policy problems, one county keeps a duplicate set of equipment in its mobile command station, operating one set of classified and one set of commercial equipment that allows them to access nonsecure websites and share network access. The downside is that operating two sets of communications devices is expensive, Ray said.
 
In addition, many vehicles are designed to be their own cosmos, but when several jurisdictions come together in a disaster, the equipment isn’t designed to work together as one system, Ray said. “This needs to change with the design,” he said. “Many times commercial providers are providing equipment to be interoperable with only themselves. I’m a big fan of a neutral standard. It’s a no-brainer and simplifies everything.”
 
In addition to Plugfest, the two-day conference attracted 200 – 400 attendees and featured workshops, keynote speakers and exercises. The event, held May 22 – 23, was designed to encourage volunteer and professional responders to participate on the day that best suited their schedules.
 
On Sunday an exercise required participants to put together an emergency center with cities reporting into the center, Griss said. Other highlights included a show-and-tell of different emergency vehicles, a personal emergency planning class, a public/private collaboration panel, a keynote address from a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) industry liaison (IL) who explained ways to coordinate before a disaster strikes, and a keynote from the California National Guard explaining what the National Guard’s role is in disasters.
 
“We’re still digesting everything we learned,” Griss said. Short reports will be written and posted on the DMI website and working groups will be created. Event participants are what Ray considers a self-selecting group that will continue to work with CMU. They will work on shared, agreed project ideas. A weekly meeting keeps the communications going, Ray said.
 
“From here we can brainstorm with them for things that would be easy to deploy,” he said. “Usually fire and police aren’t terribly well funded, so we’re interested in open-source, web-browser based uses that don’t require them to have to buy anything. We’ll also brainstorm for ideas for next year. This was the very first one; now we can build on it.”
 
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