By way of introduction, Critical Communications, (in the event of an active threat) relies on the ability to accommodate various requests, utilize multiple services, handle various speeds, and manage required capacities while maintaining various levels of security.  “Almost all assessments of the September 11th attack have concluded that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies had failed to share information that might have provided advance warning of the plot.  This realization led Congress to approve provisions in the USA Patriot Act (P.L. 107-56) and subsequent legislation that removed barriers of information sharing between intelligence and law enforcement agencies and mandated exchanges of information relating to terrorist threats”.[1]   Still to this day, however, an existence of technology within our law enforcement communities, giving officers and command staff access to real-time, accurate information is lacking.  Additionally, the fast-paced, critical nature of Emergency Management requires the ability to access and share information efficiently and effectively; however, what seems to be a simple process, is quite complex because of challenges that agencies are faced with.

Communication gaps arise when responders need to access data and effectively share information across organizations.[2] These gaps are associated with preliminary information collection, information sharing, and dissemination, situation awareness and knowledge transfer.  First responders should have communications interoperability nationally, at minimum regionally, and without question territorially, whereby public safety agencies (e.g., police, fire, emergency medical services) and service agencies (e.g., public works, transportation, hospitals) can communicate within and across agencies and jurisdictions in real time as needed. PNNL researchers broke interoperability issues down into two sub-gaps: Data Access and Organizational Information Sharing.

Data access is the ability to retrieve the right information about the situation and it is essential for an effective response and risk mitigation.  Effective information collection and sharing has been a historic challenge in many arenas, and for Emergency Management personnel to make accurate and timely decisions, they must have as much information about the situation.  For their own safety, any chance of heightening situational awareness as they approach the threat yields the best outcome.

Organizational Information Sharing often presents as a gap in communications when first responders are in situations where their awareness is diminished due to a lack of knowledge that the information exists; not knowing who controls the information; and/or the inability to access the information or having access but in a format that is not understandable. Personnel also frequently find that information is not shared across organizations and between mutual aid agencies.  This leads to confusion on information relevance; role ambiguity; decision making with limited information, expertise, resources, and time; and the ability to coordinate decision making. There is no doubt, “coordination is complicated… from federal to local” … Governor Tom Ridge once called attention to the seriousness of the issue of overlap and coordination among agencies. In discussing communication, the National Academies Press states: “There is no more important and pressing concern with respect to the effectiveness of response.”[3]  Effective knowledge transfer is critical for operations of magnitude and requires a streamlined approach and implementation for a successful resolution.

A perfect example showing the value of critical communications arose last year in a small New Hampshire town, involving a school and a multitude of responding police departments.  Providing background, prior to adopting IN FORCE911, if a New Hampshire school staff member called 9-1-1, the call gets routed through a centralized State dispatch, then routed to the next closest municipal agency for response.  This process causes a delay (National Average is 2-4 minutes) from the time the call comes in, to when officers begin response.  The second issue with using legacy 9-1-1, is that phonelines would be flooded after 15 callers called into the State dispatch at once.  If you happened to be at the emergency site, and were caller 16, a busy sound would be on the end of your phone call, rather than a dispatcher.  In this case, some type of redundancy or multi-agency notification would solve both issues.

Luckily, the school and multiple responding agencies had adopted IN FORCE911 (deployed across all of their devices) so that once the threat was perceived, the school staff member sent the alert out to everyone in that building, and also to the local PD, Sheriff’s Office, Department of Homeland Security and the NH State Police simultaneously.  This instantaneous notification strategy was successful and prompted the fastest response possible (with no delay or multi-layers to provide information to), and provided a clear and consistent communication stream, between these mutually aided agencies and within the building under threat with proper identification of rank and command.  All officers, commanders and dispatchers were alerted and could communicate back and forth on their cell phones, in the MDTs/MDCs, and at the dispatch consoles regardless of their jurisdiction, agency, or duty status. Second to this, they all could have had access to building schematics, maps, photos, IP Camera feeds, protocols, utility shutoff information in the palm of their hand or by a simple touch on the screen.  Providing that information to all responders means that officers unaware of the building layout, campus location or specified details, were given immediate access (to all of it) instantaneously upon initiation of the alert.  IN FORCE911 proved the necessity for interoperability and provided a streamlined operational approach for all parties involved, consistent and clear information from staff to law enforcement and vice versa, direct and clear communication between agencies, promoted officer safety and heightened situational awareness for all.

As it turns out, the situation was benign, but imagine if it wasn’t?  If an active shooter walked into that school, and the witness could not get through to 9-1-1 how would that have ended?  Imagine that same witness had to wait on the phone until the dispatcher walked through all the information before acting on their trainings, or the police officer down the street was unaware of what was going on?  At this point, a multitude of factors become most important during an active threat response and should never take a backseat for immediate resolution.

 Implementing or deploying IN FORCE911 enhances response efforts by bridging these gaps in communication, therefore mitigating any confusion or chaos linked to the response efforts thus preventing further loss of life.   Challenges that can be alleviated using IN FORCE911 are: lack of real time mission critical information sharing, inability of officers and agencies to communicate among themselves and across jurisdictions, and the risk of officer safety during targeted violence incidents.

Many law enforcement agencies from across the U.S. have already adopted IN FORCE911 for a real-time threat alert and communication software solution that instantaneously provides an alert and enables a two-way chat (talk to text, typing or texting) directly to dispatchers across their consoles, to patrol vehicles and to officer’s smart phones simultaneously.  “Technologies available now include real-time chat features to share updates quicky”[4], keep conversations going and capture data which in turn enhances communication strategies, provides mission critical information, empowers better decision making and predominately enhances situational awareness of responders. IN FORCE911, is CJIS-5 and FIPS 140-2 compliant (runs native on all law enforcement devices and complies with the FBI standard for encryption and security) and provides multiple responding agencies with access to a clear communication channel (delineated by rank and location) and consistent information sharing of digitized building schematics, floor plans, evacuation routes, utility shut offs, IP camera feeds and other pertinent details of the location under threat to maximize the effectiveness of response.  This provides the incident commanders with the ability to coordinate a unified approach to ending the threat as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Once the threat has been contained, communication throughout the response and reunification process needs to continue so leaders of an organization and first responders can account for personnel, provide medical triage, design, and conduct evacuations, provide transportation off site and to determine areas for on or off site hot, warm or cold zones, points for reunifications and to clear the site upon neutralization of the threat.

Another benefit of IN FORCE911 used as a tool in critical communications for when an alert needs to be sent from an officer outside of a school or municipality to staff residing inside a particular building or series of buildings in a geo-targeted area.

The following used cases stem from two small towns in the South East where officers were able to notify buildings potentially threatened by a situation, but other officers, dispatch and commanders in the jurisdiction as well.  An officer on duty was driving through town and noticed a family of black bears roaming on the outskirts of a wooded area on the edge of a school campus.  The officer recognized that the safety of children, teachers and SRO would be at risk if they were to enjoy the fresh air during recess.  The officer sent a reverse alert notifying staff and administration not to release students outside after lunch.

A second incident took place in North Carolina where a bank robbery took place and police were in pursuit of the suspect.  Dispatch was able to send the reverse alert and directly communicate effectively and immediately with several school officials and SROs in the area, prompting them to lock in without causing panic or alarm to the staff and students.  Although both incidents were not immediately life threatening, without the quick action of both officers and an effective method for communication, both situations could have resulted with a very different outcome.

When an incident requiring ‘all hands-on deck’ occurs, we cannot settle for communication gaps to take place.  IN FORCE911 is easier and faster to use than ever before, putting the power of communication in the hands of first responders when seconds matter most.

[1] CSR Report (Order Code 33873) for Congress Feb 13, 2007

[2] Gap Assessment in the EMR Community, Dept of Homeland Security

[3] National Academies Press, Role of Technology

[4] Veoci, Closing Communication Gaps in ER