One of S&T’s visionary goals is to enable communities to be disaster-proof. S&T cannot eliminate disasters, but it can arm decision makers with tools and plans that will ultimately shield communities from negative consequences. A critical step towards building disaster-proof communities is being able to ask and receive help from a neighbor. Though most disasters begin and end locally, large-scale and catastrophic disasters require coordinated mutual aid from a broad range of partners across geographic boundaries.
Based on this need, Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate ( S&T) collaborated with the National Alliance For Public Safety GIS (NAPSG) Foundation to hold the first ever National Mutual Aid Technology Exercise (NMATE) June 28-29, at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Headquarters. The exercise, sponsored by S&T’s First Responder Group (FRG), brought together technologists, operators, and decision makers from all over the country to determine to what extent existing mutual aid technology systems are able to share and incorporate each other’s resource and situational awareness information.
Based on a simulated wildfire scenario in a locality with limited resources, the exercise was conducted in one large room, simulating an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) environment. Federal, state, and local participating organizations included the American Red Cross, the New Hampshire National Guard, and International Association of Fire Chiefs. Each organization brought along a mutual aid platform they employ in their jurisdiction.
The overall goals of NMATE were to establish and coordinate dialogue, conduct technical testing among the owners of technology-enabled mutual aid systems, and ultimately build a shared understanding and information exchange between mutual aid technology systems. This shared understanding will help these systems work together more efficiently and effectively in the future, and serves as the foundation for developing technical guidance for mutual aid information sharing in real-time.
“It is incredibly difficult to get all of these people into a room at the same time,” said DHS S&T FRG Program Manager Ron Langhelm. “The benefit is that participants could walk over and talk to one another, something that is rarely possible in a real-world scenario.”
The simulation, a 5,000-acre wildfire that started north of the Wolf River Nature Preserve between Grand Junction and Williston, Tennessee, asked participants to role-play the process to provide resources for the area with their mutual aid technology. These resources included wildfire resources for wildfire containment and control, air resources, fire resources for structural protection, and overhead for incident management teams. As NMATE continued over the two days, NAPSG introduced data, or injects, to test the interoperability of the different mutual aid technology platforms.
“From the S&T perspective, we wanted to find out the challenges these systems have regarding working together,” said Langhelm. “Figuring out what the issues were will help us in a real scenario get help where it’s needed.”
Several issues were encountered during the exercise. Eliminating redundant resources, use of common fields of data among all platforms, how to provide incentive for a community to participate in mutual aid were all discussed in a no-fault setting. An after action report will be produced to give communities best practices.
“Having FEMA here as a partner, a building like this to work in, right with people who are doing the mission is great benefit to S&T,” said FRG Director Dan Cotter in an opening keynote address at NMATE. “The real gaps, the real understanding what we need to do, the requirements come from you (the participants) in meetings like this.”