C3 Technology Needs

Mar 15, 2010

The range of highly advanced technology available to first responders is truly astounding. From cognitive radios to real-time field draw screens, record fire perimeters and 3-D personal tracking devices, first responder agencies are inundated with technological choices. Many of these technologies are being developed as spin-outs from defense contracts and grants. Others are entrepreneurial inventions targeted directly toward the primary response market. But what really are the needs of first responders? And perhaps equally important, is there a technological gap developing between the “haves” and the “have nots” in the world of response agencies.

In the modern world of limited resources, developing an aggressive technology development program is not an easy task -- technologies are constantly evolving, the nature of emergency response is becoming more complex, and the interdependence between different local, regional, state, and national response units is becoming more acute. The difficulty of framing an effective technology development and acquisition strategy for this sector is evident not only at the level of individual agencies struggling under severe budgetary pressures, but also at the national policy level. Funding for first responder technology development and acquisition comes, primarily, through various federal grant, contract, and investment programs.

Needs assessment
The Center for Commercialization of Advanced Technology (CCAT, a SPAWAR funded consortium located in San Diego, California) recently managed studies on first responder needs. The studies were conducted for the 1401 Technology Transfer Program within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Homeland Defense and America’s Security Affairs). The outreach goals of the 1401 Technology Transfer Program are specifically to expedite the successful transfer of technologies to first responders and expand the use of technologies to the broader public safety community.

Consisting of over 100 interviews and focus groups with senior management of first responder agencies in several U.S. states, the study examined first responder agencies subject to a variety of natural and manmade critical incidents including wild fires, hurricane, flooding, winter storms, chemical spills, bio and nuclear threats, earthquakes, and port security. The agencies included local and regional law enforcement, fire departments, bomb and arson squads, HAZMAT units, central dispatch managers, port security teams, military, and offices of emergency management from small and large, urban and rural communities. While our studies covered a number of different technologies, the focus here is primarily on the specific areas of Command, Control & Communication (C3) for 1st responder situational awareness.

Enhancing Situational Awareness
In general, all first responders identified Interoperability of 1st Responder Communications and Merging of Data, Voice, Video, and Text as the major technology needs. These issues have been consistently identified by many other studies and after actual large-scale disasters such as the 2005 Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the 2003 and 2007 wildfires in San Diego, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti where numerous and diverse agencies responded. Continuous technology improvements are being implemented in these areas. However, it is important to note that seven other categories were also identified. Many of these technologies have not received much attention, or are fairly new inventions. Table 1 summaries the technology needs by category, with examples of responses.

Rural and Smaller Agencies
In addition, the focus groups indicated that a serious technology gap was developing between the better funded urban agencies and smaller, more rural agencies. For example, rural agencies often rely on larger ­agencies to support them during a major incident.

Not surprisingly, most rural groups were interested in technologies that assisted in communication interoperability. Given the small size, and often volunteer nature, of rural responders, even a minor incident may require inter-agency cooperation. Satellite phones also appeared very important since many rural agencies noted that reception for radios and cellular phones in the their areas are spotty, and that repeaters and communication systems often fail ­during major natural disasters, such as ­hurricanes.

Most agency directors complained that rural communities generally lagged behind their urban counterparts in acquiring C3 technologies to enhance situational awareness in critical incidents, and that resources were a major problem. As the Police Chief of a smaller North Carolina community noted.

“If I have 10 people available and I need 10 people for a major incident, I still have to worry about other incidents that occur. Just because we have a major incident does not mean everyone else will hold off on their everyday emergencies. This is actually the biggest problem because you end up having one person doing too much.”

Another Police Chief of a small community observed, “Communications is the major problems – we need personnel trained well with the proper technology that goes along with the training.” Additional concerns were noted by the director of a rural county emergency service agency who indicated that “ordering and managing resources is often a logistical nightmare”

In fact, solutions for most of the technology needs identified by rural agencies are already being implemented in many urban agencies. There was general agreement that rural agencies could benefit simply from the transfer of existing first responder technologies. However, critical differences between smaller and larger agencies were emphasized by various directors. Most of these differences were due to the small size of rural agencies, such as the need for rural response personnel to multi-task during critical incidents. This creates a situation where communications becomes overly time consuming during critical incidents, Lower levels of training and technology acquisition is indicative of the challenges faced in small communities, The need for inter-agency cooperation becomes glaringly obvious even in relatively minor incidents, due to the lack of personnel.

Table 2 shows the most often cited barriers to technology adoption that were identified by the rural 1st responder agency focus groups.

Some Observations and Recommendations
In conclusion, several recommendations emerged from these studies.

  1. national and state level technology work groups (TWGs) need to have more rural and smaller agency representation. This was noted by many smaller first responder directors who felt their voices were being ignored. Rural and smaller agencies felt they were at the “bottom of the barrel,” yet they often have to deal with the same critical incidents as urban agencies.
  2. first responder grant funding should address not only initial technology acquisition, but also follow-up training, service plans, and equipment add-ons. Many small agencies were found to have acquired technologies that, within a few years of sporadic use, staff had forgotten how to properly operate .
  3. rural and smaller agencies can benefit from existing technologies that are already in use by urban communities.
  4. inter-operability and resource management remain the major problems, particularly for smaller, rural communities.
  5. federal and state level grants and resources for first responder technology development should be based upon honest and well done “needs assessment studies,” rather than the biases of distant decision-makers or non-representative technology advising committees.
  6. there needs to be much greater regional inter-agency cooperation in testing, acquiring and managing expensive response technology, particularly in rural areas. It was generally felt that there should be “repositories” of well positioned assets and resources that could be called out in critical incidents.

Craig S. Galbraith, MSc, Ph.D. is a Professor of Technology Management at the University of North Carolina (Wilmington campus).
Christy DiFelice, MPA, is a Special Projects Coordinator at the Brunswick County Emergency Services in North Carolina.
The full needs assessment reports mentioned in this article are available from the Center for Commercialization of Advanced Technology (CCAT), 5252 Campanile Drive, San Diego, CA 92182-1993. http://www.ccatsandiego.org/
© FrontLine Security 2010