Creating a common operating picture

The Los Angeles Regional Common Operational Picture Program employs technologies to improve off-site emergency operations communications

It was an early winter morning in January 2005 when a distraught man doused his SUV in gasoline and parked it on the track of a Metrolink rail line in Glendale, California. The ensuing crash derailed two trains, killed 11 people and injured 180.

Employees at a nearby Costco who heard the collision rushed to the scene. Forklift operators, truck drivers and stock clerks pulled victims from the wreckage and used store carts to wheel some of the most severely injured to safety.

The wreck created a massive rescue and triage operation with more than 300 firefighters and 35 ambulances carrying the injured to area hospitals. Located in an industrial section of Glendale, a suburb of north Los Angeles, the scene quickly became the site of a mutual aid effort that involved, in addition to the Glendale Police Department, the Los Angeles, Burbank and Long Beach police departments; the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (LASD); and the California Highway Patrol.

"The event was of such magnitude that we didn't even call for mutual aid. Agencies just started showing up," recalls Capt. Raymond Edey of the Glendale PD. "You blinked and you had the resources you needed."

Each of the responding agencies set up its own command post in the same parking lot. But proximity didn't necessarily create a common operating picture.

Evolution of incident command

Most incident command posts are still operating as the military did during the Korean War: paper maps covered with plastic, grease pencils, radios, cell phones (the modern equivalent of the field telephone), white boards and poster paper taped to the wall. While these tools are effective at the incident command post, the movement of information from responders at the incident to commanders at off-site operations centers is limited to verbal description, which can be subject to unintended interpretation and distortion.

The communications issues experienced on September 11, probably more than any other event, prompted the government to put in place the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which includes a component requiring agencies responding to a large-scale incident or an incident with multiple sites to find a way to have a "common operating picture." In short, the government says, find a way to make sure the right hand knows what the left hand is doing.

The Los Angeles region has found a way to address the challenge by creating a project that includes the relevant public safety agencies, uses U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant funds and incorporates the DHS philosophy that new technologies be created from the bottom up to ensure first responder requirements are incorporated. Through focus groups and the hindsight gained from various homeland security exercises, the Los Angeles Regional Common Operational Picture Program (LARCOPP) developed a concept and harnessed technologies that enable on-site incident commanders to electronically gather data and transmit it to those at off-site emergency operations centers (EOCs) and to other agencies, jurisdictions and disciplines.

The LARCOPP committee members also studied the mass transit bombings in England and Spain. They concluded the system would have to accommodate more than one major incident, whether man-made or a natural disaster, as well as what appeared to be the future of terrorism — multiple simultaneous attacks.

It also would have to ensure that information flowed according to California's Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS), which helps unify the state's emergency management organization into a single integrated system. SEMS incorporates the incident command system, and has five organizational levels that are activated as necessary: field response, local government, operational area, region and state.

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