Home Innovation Whole Community Concept: How Do We Improve How First Responders Work with Local Helpers?

Whole Community Concept: How Do We Improve How First Responders Work with Local Helpers?

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By Randall Hanifen
Contributor, EDM Digest

As we watched much of the footage of the response to Hurricane Harvey, we can stand proud of our country and the collection of local, state, and federal response teams, as well as the many community citizens who came to the rescue of other citizens in need during the flooding. It was a great sight after previous weeks, when we had focused on what divides our country.

How Do New Methods of Emergency Notification Affect Government?

With the advent of social media and technology, we now have numerous ways for people to identify when they are in need. With the overwhelming amount of calls to 911 services, social media was likely one of the only ways to identify that you were in an emergency situation.

Another way to reach first responders was through texting. The ease of sending a text proved useful to hurricane victims.

But how we can get all of this information answered, interpreted, and responded to in a timely manner? When I was a kid, we had a number on the refrigerator which was the emergency services number. Later, we switched to 911.

The reason for using 911 was that it is a universal number, as opposed to the different phone numbers used by nearly every community. The 911 number provides one place to report an emergency.

Governments also understood that on the other end of the 911 line, they needed to provide dispatchers who could answer the call properly and send the appropriate services to emergency victims.

Our current situation requires dispatchers to take 911 calls and quickly interpret text messages. It requires personnel at the EOC or Incident Command Post to run a program that can locate tweets and other posts based on a set of search criteria. The program can also be used to monitor a Twitter account and keep up with calls for help.

Coordinating Emergency Services with the All Community Response

Empowering residents to help each other is possibly one of the best ideas derived in emergency management, but this change does not come with necessary changes from municipal responders. In Hurricane Harvey, we saw many pictures of local boat owners who rescued other people in need. They even called those helpers the "Cajun Navy."

The combination of local helpers with first responders showed that the whole community concept could work and work well. But as government responders, we often receive an assignment to rescue someone who has tweeted or otherwise alerted authorities to their need for rescue.

By the time first responders can get into position and launch watercraft to go to a victim's location, they are sometimes too late. During Harvey, for example, emergency services would arrive to find no victim, who had already been rescued by the Cajun Navy. While it is good that local helpers are promptly rescuing people in these situations, it also means that government responders have spent a great deal of time and effort only to find nothing.

But now, we have the technology through a company called PulsePoint that can dispatch local citizens to a cardiac arrest, based on the PulsePoint subscriber’s phone location. This type of technology would not be hard to replicate for first responders. It would allow a rescuer to accept and acknowledge a rescue, much like an Uber driver accepts your ride request.

Anyone who is a dispatcher will tell you that the two-way communication arriving via 911 phone is the best information. The dispatcher can quickly gain vital information, since their training can elicit what may not be obvious to the reporting party.

For example, let's say a homeowner calls and says his or her car is on fire. If the homeowner forgets to tell the 911 dispatcher that the fire is in the garage, learning this information changes the response significantly for the fire department. While it is great to have the whole community involved in a rescue process, we must also have a way of knowing what the community is doing in real time.

Solutions to the Problems of Facing a Whole Community Approach

PulsePoint produced a smartphone application that connects responders and the community for emergencies, particularly cardiac arrests. This application allows those who have been trained in CPR to receive real-time notifications   that a cardiac arrest happened in their are. That person can then respond and administer CPR.

This type of application needs to be replicated for disaster relief efforts. With this technology, community rescuers can acknowledge calls for help, provide a real-time status (much like the Active 911 application allows real-time monitoring of response status by anyone with the application) and add a picture of the rescued person.

Government dispatchers or emergency coordinators could identify drop-off points for rescue victims. Afterward, first responders could take that event off the list of 911 calls.

While some people may argue that trapped civilians would be at unnecessary risk, the application could be altered to just link calls with certain danger parameters in the background. This change would provide first responders with a way to not advertise dangerous calls, but just track if a citizen is in the area and happens to rescue a victim.

Emergency Communications Must Involve a Common Operating Platform

All of this emergency information needs to be on a platform that can be accessed by rescuers at all levels of government by using login credentials. This safeguard will keep the information away from prying eyes, but will also provide coordination (much like the WebEOC software) for first responders.

Coordination is one of the toughest obstacles to overcome in a disaster. We now have technology that can provide a common operating picture and can be enhanced as needed. To make technology further improve first responder performance and ensure quicker rescues of disaster victims, we must invest and work together.

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Randall Hanifen Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. from a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.