Creating a common operating picture

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.

SEMS is essentially a management structure. LARCOPP can provide information to all levels of that structure and from each incident site, thereby giving command staff the "ground truth" from each location. Each bit of information gathered by LARCOPP thus becomes a piece of the puzzle that, when put together, becomes the common operating picture.

Technology in action

The idea for LARCOPP had been germinating among the region's fire and law enforcement professionals for several months when the Metrolink incident mentioned earlier made clear the need for such a technology. "As we watched the scene unfold, we talked about wouldn't it be nice if we had something like LARCOPP," Edey describes. "It would have been a great tool to help coordinate this kind of incident ... giving us the big picture."

Edey notes that LARCOPP would have indicated where all the resources from the multiple disciplines and agencies were and what they were doing. It also would have taken a load off the incident commander by reducing the number of requests for constant updates.

"Everyone would have had the same information and the same, real-time picture of the scene without the distortion that can happen when you're transmitting information verbally," he says

To fill the needs of NIMS, SEMS and basic incident command, the LARCOPP technology has three integrated programs:

  • The LARCOPP Portal is easily the most innovative technology and the one that will provide real-time situational awareness and a common operating picture. It is a secure, Web-based platform that can transmit real-time video of an incident via deployable wireless broadband digital cameras, through a video uplink from a news agency camera or from footage shot by a public safety agency's helicopter.

    It allows for the transmission of perimeter information, street maps, aerial views of the site, traffic routes, emergency vehicle access and a host of GIS data. It lets commanders locate, track, and move manpower and equipment resources.

    The system works in real time, sending the same information to other responding agencies, off-site EOCs, or if needed, to the state EOC or the DHS National Operations Center in Washington, D.C.

    The technology, known as AntaresX, has been installed in agency SUVs or mobile command posts. Attached to the top of the vehicle is a 1.2-meter dish that sends information via satellite. The satellite component makes the AntaresX technology extraordinarily robust because it uses a system powerful enough to transmit through rain, smoke or heavy cloud cover.

  • The LARCOPP Alert and Notification System facilitates the simultaneous emergency notification of public safety agencies, government officials and key decision-makers that an incident has occurred, and advises them to log onto the LARCOPP Portal for additional information. This component uses commercial technology that alternately pages, e-mails, or sends a voice or text message to recipients' homes, cell phones, PDAs, pagers or offices. It continues to contact the recipients' various numbers until the person logs in and acknowledges the alert. When necessary, the recipient also can log in his response time to the incident scene. That information is relayed to one of the area EOCs to track who has been notified and who is responding to the scene.
  • The LARCOPP Event Network is modeled after the National Event Network (NEN) currently in use by DHS and the military. The NEN creates a virtual command team in the event of a fast-developing situation. It allows key decision-makers to quickly collaborate via a secure conference call. The system is activated when the LARCOPP Alert and Notification System notifies a specific roster of personnel that an event is occurring and automatically connects them to a secure conference call. The benefit of this element of the system is its ability to bring together those who are responsible for and trained to deal with the unfolding incident.

In its first phase the LARCOPP suite of hardware and software has been installed in eight California law enforcement and fire agency vehicles (either SUVs or mobile command posts) and two operations centers. There are plans to add 19 vehicles in the next two years and to add the technology to other area operations centers.

Two LARCOPP consoles also have been built. Because of the city of Los Angeles' size and complexity, one console is in the LAPD's Department Operations Center. The second console is in the LASD's Emergency Operations Bureau/Los Angeles County EOC, which serves all of the cities in the operational area.

"Anyone else who needs access to the information can log on to a password-protected Web site," explains the LAPD's Lt. Don Farrell, the LARCOPP Interagency Manager.

Farrell uses a radiological explosion as an example of when this Web site access may be used. He notes that the site can disseminate mapping, as well as video, information to aid in the evacuation of the area and transport of the injured to nearby hospitals. "We can give any agency or discipline a temporary password, and they can get what they need by logging on to the LARCOPP site," he says.

When an incident occurs in another state, LARCOPP goes on the road or takes to the air. "We can load these (LARCOPP-equipped) vehicles onto a C130, fly them to the site and uplink mapping, live video, resource information and voice over Internet," explains Farrell. "We can shoot that information to the satellite, to the operations center in L.A., and from there onto the Internet so it's accessible to another agency."

Working together

The LARCOPP project sprang from the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) and the State Homeland Security Grant Program Working Groups, which are comprised of representatives from area law enforcement, fire service and emergency management agencies. They meet regularly to discuss and prioritize homeland security projects and allocate DHS grant funds. The LARCOPP project capitalized on those established relationships by creating an ad hoc committee to address the NIMS requirement of a common operational picture among responding agencies.

In addition to the Los Angeles city and county fire, police and sheriff's departments, the project has included the Long Beach police and fire departments, the Glendale PD, which is the third largest city in the operational area behind Los Angeles and Long Beach, and the Pomona Police Department, located on the eastern edge of the county.

Pomona is, perhaps, the anomaly of the group since it is not part of the UASI area. According to Pomona PD's Lt. Bill Leumann, making the Pomona PD part of the project makes the LARCOPP system available to smaller cities in the more remote and rural areas. More important, however, is that it completes a geographic triangle that ensures coverage of the western, northern and eastern portions of the county.

"(The LARCOPP executive committee) realized LARCOPP could not be successful if we kept all the toys among the big agencies," says Farrell. "We had to be inclusive."

There is a significant need to deploy LARCOPP in the northern and eastern edges of the county, along the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, because this area is prone to wildfires, notes Farrell. Glendale and Pomona jurisdictions fall within these areas.

"We now have a network of coverage that allows us to manage wildfires and other situations," Farrell says.

Inclusiveness seems to be the catchword for the LARCOPP project, which has capitalized on relationships built through the grant fund working groups. Working together on the grueling and sometimes contentious process of allocating grant funds can bring a community together or break it apart. In the case of the Los Angeles region, it seems to have created an atmosphere where new ideas are greeted with open minds.

"Everyone was receptive (to LARCOPP) because we had a measure of trust and ongoing relationships between the parties," Farrell says. "We try to keep the lines of communication open on an ongoing basis. We don't just exchange business cards, shake hands and walk away. We keep in regular contact, and we stay consistent with our representatives so we don't have to continually rebuild those relationships."

LARCOPP, both the people and the technology behind the system, is dedicated to maintaining a common operational picture through effective communications.

Lois Pilant Grossman is a freelance writer and editor living in California.

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