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Sharing Helps First Responders

​DONALD MCGARRY was a paramedic on a call in upstate New York when his ambulance hit a sheet of ice on a bridge and careened into the guardrail. He had no easy way to communicate to all of the other ambulances en route about the icy conditions, and thus several others ended up against the bridge barrier as well. Now McGarry is a researcher at MITRE Corp., and his experiences have spurred him to improve first-responder communications.

“If information has to get either repeated or relayed to other folks, they often don’t have a real-time perspective of the situation on the ground or what they’re responding to. And oftentimes they’ll get a minimal set of information if they ask for it over the radio,” McGarry says.

One tool McGarry is working on, the Incident Command Net for First Responder Collaboration and Integration (IC.NET), is a message router that would help disseminate vital data instantly.

IC.NET, which uses the OASIS standard Emergency Data Exchange Language (EDXL), is a way for first responders to communicate with one another all at once. Responders would input data into a network that is accessed by various agencies. IC.NET would then take that information and overlay area information, such as how the emergency is situated with regard to nearby hospitals.

The system has already been used in the field. McGarry and the folks from MITRE developed a computer display for the router’s information for the Los Angeles City Fire Department (LAFD) so that they could use it in 2010 during Operation Golden Phoenix, a disaster exercise sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and several other emergency entities in Los Angeles. The exercise involved the simulated detonation of a nuclear device.

During Operation Golden Phoenix, the LAFD was able to overlay a chemical and radiological dispersion plume model with other first responder data. The various organizations involved in the drill were then able to access and use that data to inform their decision-making. The department was pleased with the success of IC.NET during Golden Phoenix and has continued to use it, says Xenophon Gikas, a captain with the LAFD.

Gikas says IC.NET has the potential to help save lives. “It’s all about safety and life. And the number one enemy to safety and life is time…it’s the time for somebody to notify me at the dispatch center to get resources on the road, and how long does it take them to get there because of traffic, how long does it take to get the appropriate resources there, and then of course ramp up a surgeon and all those other things too,” he says.

The IC.NET is all about efficiency. “It enables us to talk to the police dispatch without actually having to call them,” since the information is all there on computer displays that police dispatchers can access, says Gikas. And because IC.NET is not proprietary, it is helping the department break down the traditional silos that impede quick and efficient information dispersal, he adds.

One example of that openness, says Gikas, is that the fire department has made IC.NET available to the Hospital Association of Southern California so that it can share information in an emergency about how many beds are free in area hospitals. Hospitals could also use IC.NET to find out where the city’s paramedics are concentrated in the event of a major emergency. Although the hospital did not initially use the same EDXL standard that IC.NET works on, the fire department’s dispatch was reformatting data from the hospital into the standard, and now the hospital is pushing out data in the standard, for the IC.NET router as well.

McGarry is talking with other cities about using IC.NET as well. He’s hoping to do all he can to give first responders the advantages they need to save lives so that instead of having multiple ambulances stuck on icy bridges or caught in traffic, first responders can get to the emergencies and hospitals as quickly as possible.