Emergency Management by Tablet Top

Sep 15, 2011

“In an emergency situation, we need be able to get a common operating picture quickly,” says Sampson. “Using the map feature on the tablet, I can view a satellite image of the site or even zoom-in to a street level view and assess the surrounding area before even arriving on scene.”

As Deputy Chief of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency, a part of the Calgary Fire Department, Sampson was issued a tablet on a trial basis along with the Fire Chief and Deputies. The 64 GB tablets with Wi-Fi and 3G are connected the City of Calgary network allowing the tablet to be used as desk-top computer for all intents and purposes. However, being much smaller than even a laptop computer, the tablet is less cumbersome allowing for quick and easy access.

“You can carry a smart phone, but frankly they’re too small to really see the whole scene in a map view. This is workable from a size perspective. Several emergency responders can view it on the tablet at once.”

In August, Calgary Emergency Management Agency was called to Airdrie, Alberta to aid in the response to a train derailment. While in unfamiliar territory, the map feature immediately became an invaluable tool to assess the potential impact of the derailment on the surrounding area.

“It wasn’t our home city so we didn’t know the surrounding area,” says Sampson. Using the tablet, I was able to look at the satellite view and immediately see the nearby roadways, assess transportation impacts, find out where the local population was situated and even view hills and near by water that might be affected.”

Having quick access to accurate maps means more than just giving emergency management a lay of the land. Using the technology available through the mapping software, Sampson has also been able to see a scene in detail prior to arriving.

"Recently as Duty Deputy for the Calgary Fire Department, I was called at home for a two-alarm fire in a strip mall. By simply inputting the address, I was able to look at the structure and the respective exposures. I was on the phone with dispatch at the same time as I was looking at the buildings."

One of the goals of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency is to adapt commercial technology for use in emergency management and response applications.

“There’s an application program called Timmy ME,” says Sampson, “Where you can simply pull up a list of every Tim Hortons in the area. It tells you where can find the nearest coffee. What if we created a similar application to tell you where the nearest potential emergency reception centres are located?”

Sampson says the City of Calgary has vast information to populate maps. Calgary has the information to show best evacuation routes, reception and evacuation centres with details such as wheelchair access, number of square feet and more.

“If we use a similar kind of applications as the Timmy ME we would be able to click on the map of a nearby gymnasium and know how many evacuees it could hold, if it had showers or access to a kitchen.”

Sampson says that plans are underway to work with information technology experts to begin development of applications that would have the information in an interactive map with overlays relevant to emergency management.

“We know where the schools are already. If we had that in an application we could simply click on high-schools, elementary schools or even senior’s centres and it would help us determine the transportation and other needs for an evacuation.”

As one of the first emergency management services in Canada using tablets, the Deputy Chief was recently able to demonstrate the technology while attending a Canada Task Force 2 training exercise in Ottawa. Joining the Canada Task Force teams from across Canada, Sampson was immediately able to pull up the area of the exercises and had a quick view of a virtual 360° size-up.

With this kind of technology in hand Sampson says the potential gain will have a positive impact on all emergency response. This will allow emergency responders the ability to quickly view hospitals and access detailed information about them, view critical infrastructure and even show where the population is located at any time. Sampson says there is great potential for plume analysis and wind and weather data.

“Our goal has to be to gather and use the data. It’s no excuse to have the information we needed but not to be able to use it when an emergency arises.”

Using data effectively can make the difference between a catastrophic event and a well managed emergency. He says about 80% of everything you need to know in an emergency is geospatial – almost everything can be placed on a map.

“Good decisions come from good information,” says Sampson. “These are the kinds of technologies we should be creating and using at a national level to develop our capacity to respond anywhere in Canada.”

Tom Sampson was appointed Deputy Chief of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency in March 2009 after serving more than 24 years in emergency services – 11 of those as Chief of Emergency Medical Services. His years as a Chief of first responders and involvement on the governing committee for Public Safety ­Communications has equipped him with a ­collaborative nature essential in his role of overseeing Calgary Emergency Management Agency operations.

Building and fostering strong relationships is a cornerstone of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency. Calgary Emergency Management Agency is responsible for ensuring a coordinated response to crisis situations that may affect Calgarians – their health, properties or livelihoods. This entails engaging 30 member agencies that deal with all aspects of emergency response from Calgary Police Services, Fire, EMS to City water services, Emergency Social Services, corporate communications, provincial authorities as well as local utility providers and educational institutions.

Ensuring a coordinated and effective response during a major crisis is only one of Chief Sampson’s critical accountabilities. Community preparedness through awareness and education is also a priority. Ensuring citizens are in a position to help themselves and their families in a crisis situation means stronger resilience to the devastation that may be the result of a ­disaster.

Currently Chief Sampson is a member of the Conference Board of Canada Centre for National Security and the Council on Emergency Management. He looks forward to establishing Calgary Emergency Management Agency as a leader in municipal emergency management and has every confidence of accomplishing this with his dedicated team.  

© FrontLine Security 2011