Using Global Positioning System to Take Command

Adding GPS capabilities to command post operations will improve personnel and asset management.


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.

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