Using Global Positioning System to Take Command

You are in charge when a major disaster strikes — an explosion of unknown origin, a natural weather event, commercial airliner crash, kidnapped child and so on. There are emergency plans in place, and the department has run practical application exercises with a variety of outcomes. But the question remains — how can the initial response and the ensuing chaos be best managed considering these types of situations continue to evolve and present new challenges?

Currently, most large organizations rely on radio transmissions to organize the scene. In the midst of chaos, incident commanders not only track and direct resources, respond to critical locations, or deploy mission-specific teams, but they also need to determine where the first responders went and who they are. Tracking personnel resources is a crucial component of managing a critical incident.

In the midst of turning reaction into response, managers are often consumed with controlling more than one radio frequency, trying to map personnel locations and allocating where more and less is needed. As any situation evolves, information pours in and managers need to constantly adjust plans, move resources, bring in additional equipment and continue to assess in order to reach goals and complete the mission. Sometimes they are hampered by a lengthy response time of an individual with a particular expertise or a high-ranking official that needs to be intimately involved in the decision-making process.

Global Positioning Satellite System (GPS) technology offers solutions to these challenges. GPS enables an individual to determine his precise location on the Earth via devices that receive signals from a constellation of 24 satellites. Imagine establishing a command post with computer screens that graphically depict the locations of resources and display a real-time image of the scene from a satellite, albeit with a slight delay. Commanders at distant locations could view the same picture, communicate and develop strategies. In addition, if personnel are properly equipped, the incident commander can transmit information such as a picture of a wanted suspect, logistical plans of a building or an overhead view of a disaster to personnel through a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). GPS can increase efficiency, promote officer safety, augment plan development, and enhance communications between headquarters and field command posts.

The evolution of the command post

Over the past decade, policing has become more complex with greater community policing demands, increased accountability for law enforcement agencies, public access to high-powered weapons, a more litigious and media-influenced society, biohazards, and the threat of terrorism. The result has been law enforcement agencies not only having to work harder, but also work smarter.

In response, agencies have developed strategic plans, elaborate risk management tracking systems, elite tactical units and have embraced technology as quickly as they can find the funds to purchase the equipment. Officer safety, though, has remained a top priority no matter how mundane or complex a situation might be.

Great progress has been made to coordinate command post operations during critical incidents. The Incident Command System (ICS) is a standardized on-scene incident management concept, designed to allow responders to adopt an integrated organizational structure equal to the complexity of any single incident or multiple incidents without being hindered by jurisdictional boundaries.

In 1980, federal officials transitioned ICS into a national program called the National Interagency Incident Management System (NIIMS), which became the basis of a response management system for all federal agencies with wildfire management responsibilities. Since 2004, first responder agencies across the United States have been transitioning to the National Incident Management System (NIMS), a successor and expansion of the NIIMS model.

NIMS includes five major subsystems which form a comprehensive approach to critical incident management. The subsystems include the ICS, training, qualifications and certification, publications management, and supporting technology.

While most emergency situations are handled locally, help may be needed from other jurisdictions and the state and/or federal government in a major incident. NIMS was developed so responders from different jurisdictions and disciplines can work together to better respond to natural disasters and emergencies. These systems have been adapted and incorporated into current law enforcement command post operations, with interoperability as a key ingredient.

NIMS requires constant training, evaluation and improvements. As technology advances, new programs are developed to incorporate beneficial equipment and technology.

Questions, however, do remain. What is the situation status? Where are our people? What are they doing? What additional resources might be needed? GPS systems provide an unique resource to help answer such questions. In fact, integrating their use into a NIMS response may hold the key to maximizing safety and success in any major incident.

The future for law enforcement

As early as 1979, the military was using GPS to monitor nuclear proliferation, assess attacks and evaluate strike damage. Today, while the main uses for GPS in the law enforcement command post setting may be to track resources, develop strategies, disseminate information and have real-time visuals of locations, the potential to track biohazards, improvised explosive devices, anarchist activity and terrorist attacks is very real. However, on a smaller scale, the potential for "friendly fire" also exists in law enforcement scenarios such as building searches, barricaded suspects or other large-scale deployment of peace officers searching for felons.

GPS technology has resolved this issue in a less controlled setting, for example the desert, with many more unknowns. The military development of GPS technology in the Command Post of the Future (See "Military-tested technology guides command post development" on Page 68) has paved the way for law enforcement to implement the best of the technology which meets law enforcement needs (See "Following the bread crumb trail" on Page 72).

The "big" picture incorporates GPS and LPS (Local Positioning Systems) into a greater network of systems to accomplish the ultimate purpose of a state-of-the-art, real-time, law enforcement command post. Safety, interoperability, flexibility and coordinated assessments by leaders are the main goals of these systems.

With LPS, a structure must be pre-wired with tracking sensors or the individuals tracked must wear tracking technology as a part of their equipment. Managers an then determine locale using receivers on location to triangulate an individual's exact position. To triangulate positions indoors, the system needs to perform the same functions as the satellites. There are a couple of ways of doing this.

The first is to have a building that is wired with sensors, knowing each individual's location from sensors on responders. A triangulation is performed on a receiver and each responder's location is determined via the wired"building. Since every building cannot be wired, managers must have an ad hoc wireless system to perform the same function.

The second is to use "dead reckoning." This would entail attaching a sensor to each officer. The sensor uses inertial guidance to "dead reckon," or estimate the movement, to determine the location as the officer moves away from the patrol car. The Los Angeles (California) Fire Department recently completed a test and the accuracy was in the inches range on a three-story building. The problem is that the information needs to be transmitted to a main computer.

The officer must have some sort of transmitter, such as a portable radio. For this model, the main computer would be hooked into the radio system for the information to be displayed. PDAs have the potential to incorporate this tracking with the added benefit of download capabilities and information transmission over a wireless network.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are also a component of GPS and the command post model. GIS is a technology used to view and analyze data from a geographic perspective. GIS links location to information (such as people to addresses, buildings to parcels or streets within a network) and layers that information to give the user a better understanding of how it all interrelates. The incident commander can choose what layers to combine based on purpose. For example, GIS can provide an information connection between a suspect to a particular apartment he may have secreted himself in.

The command post of the future

The overall vision of the ideal law enforcement command post will incorporate computer technology for commanders at various locations to provide real-time situational awareness and resource positions. In addition, commanders will have the ability to discuss tactical plans from various locations and the potential for resource distribution as the needs of the incident unfold. There will be the ability to view all the necessary information on computer screens at the command post or on a responder's PDA in the field.

Possible uses of GPS and the PDA for field officers include displaying a location's floor plan, the picture of a wanted suspect or a satellite view of a disaster scene. The advancements made by the military in this technology give law enforcement the opportunity to adapt tested systems and technologies to law enforcement needs.

Law enforcement will need to thoroughly evaluate what it requires and perhaps even court the military to determine what equipment is necessary to meet law enforcement needs. It is not beyond comprehension for law enforcement to acquire used equipment from the military as updated GPS systems are integrated in the future.

Currently, there are a number of companies which have GPS compatible software. One of these, Visionair, located in Castle Hayne, North Carolina, provides law enforcement with a number of software support system packages that can be built upon over time.

GPS implementation costs vary according to current support systems, number of units necessary, PDA or radio capability, and cost, service, maintenance, agency size and other factors. Clearly, implementation of a system in a small to moderate agency would cost less than implementation in an agency the size of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).

A case study

The infamous, "North Hollywood Shooting," that occurred in Los Angeles on February 28, 1997, was one of the first situations where suspects had posssession of high-powered weapons, ballistic vests and a specific plan of escape. The shooting response, with the combined efforts of the Burbank Police Department, Los Angeles School Police Department, California Highway Patrol and the LAPD, resulted in the wounding of 12 police officers, eight civilians and the deaths of both bank robbers.

Implementing the GPS command post model in this situation, the incident commander at the scene would have had a computer with a real-time visual of the location, suspects and responding units. The commander would have been able to direct resources, anticipate hazards, see suspect movement, possible civilians and potential escape routes or vehicles.

Due to the size of Los Angeles, it is not always practical for the chief of police to respond to the scene in a timely manner. In this model, the chief would have viewed the scene from a system set up near his office. The incident commander and chief would have discussed strategy and options while being able to view the incident. At the same time, information would have been transmitted to field forces via a PDA to preserve air time and ensure suspects would not access the information.

In events of lesser or greater magnitude, the usefulness of accurate, shareable data will not only resolve incidents more quickly, it can save lives.

GPS is the future

From the smallest incident to the worst natural or man-made disaster, GPS technology will have the capability to efficiently and expeditiously track personnel resources, improve information to personnel involved, enhance communications between command personnel, aid in decision making, expedite tactical missions and create a safer environment for personnel involved in critical or major incidents.

This GPS-equipped model command post is not just a vision of the future for law enforcement; it is a reality and could be in a working command post in the very near future. The technology necessary to build an incident command post fulfilling the needs of a department, its officers and the community is here using GPS technology and various systems.

Considering the days when law enforcement did not have portable radios for officers or deputies, it might be easy to consent to the status quo — computers in cars for reports and calls, and other technologies for crime fighting such as mobile license plate readers. It is incumbent upon all managers to ensure the safety their officers, the safety of the community and the successful conclusions to all critical incidents. GPS technology in law enforcement command posts is the future.