June 18, 2009 By Corey McKenna
Four Florida counties have been preparing for the 2009 hurricane season, which officially began June 1, by implementing a crisis information system that will allow emergency managers to share information and create a regional common operating picture using the Internet. Palm Beach, Monroe, Miami-Dade and Broward counties have implemented WebEOC from ESi to increase regional collaboration during the inevitable severe weather.
The software allows first responders, hospitals, state agencies and support groups, such as the Red Cross, to send and receive information during a crisis through a Web browser.
During conference calls to coordinate the regional response to tropical storm Fay in 2008, emergency managers traded information on routine matters, such as when county offices would be closed, when emergency operations centers (EOC) would be open and when evacuations were issued.
With the software, the information sharing will be automated through the use of "boards," which are what the different screens of information are called. "WebEOC enables the local jurisdictions to just plug that information in, and then everybody sees it real time," said Matt Cronin, special projects coordinator of the Palm Beach County Emergency Operations Center. "I don't imagine that the conference calls will stop, but it will eliminate us having to go over that information on the calls because we can all just enter it locally on our local boards -- on our different statuses -- and then all that information is just pushed to the other counties."
The first step, in which each of the counties set up implementations of the software, has been completed. The next step is to connect the four counties' systems using the ESiWebFusion component, which allows WebEOC servers to communicate with each other or third-party systems. "That's probably a month or two off. We're just waiting on some funding to be freed up," Cronin said. "We already have regional funding allocated from the South Florida [Urban Area Security Initiative] for WebEOC. It's just a matter of having that money become available."
These four counties are using the software to manage resources and coordination for large-scale events and for conducting impact assessments, Cronin said.
Cronin likes the program because it can be customized to fit the county's existing processes. "From what I've heard and from every system that I've used in the past, it's like, 'Here's a system and adapt your processes to meet the system.' Whereas WebEOC comes in and says, 'What are your processes? [We'll] build the system based on your existing process.'"
The system allows emergency managers to create boards without having to rely on the IT staff. "We've found a lot of great uses for it on trying to use it on a day-to-day basis as well. And all those boards can just be customized on the fly. During an activation we could decide we need a board to track a certain type of information and just create that on the fly," Cronin said. "We need the IT guys to make sure the network infrastructure is up, to install the servers -- just basic set up. But once it's set up, it doesn't have to be administered by an IT person."
Palm Beach County has an after-action board that it uses to gather feedback from users in real-time during events, exercises and training sessions. "Anytime during a real event or an exercise they can log on to that board, give their feedback, give their suggestions for improvement, [and] emergency management can actually get in there and respond."
Broward County recently participated in a statewide disaster exercise that simulated the effects of a Category-5 storm and used WebEOC for the first time. During the exercise, the county had more than 225 users in the EOC and everyone was able to use the system after a 20-minute briefing, Broward County Emergency Management Director Chuck Lanza said in a press release.
"It's my hope that the state will get on board with WebEOC soon, so we'll all be able to operate under a common operating picture during our missions," Lanza said.