Emergency officials join forces via federally financed software
NEW ORLEANS The architects of a new emergency response plan that links computers in four parishes and creates a problem-solving "fusion center," a mutual-aid pact and a central evacuation command post expect regionalism to trump parochialism if a major hurricane strikes the New Orleans area this year.
As the 2007 Atlantic hurricane season opened this week, sophisticated new WebEOC computer software was being installed at emergency operations centers in Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes.
The software -- bought as a regional resource by the four local governments using a $224,000 federal Homeland Security grant -- will allow emergency managers and decision-makers in each parish to closely track all requests for aid, keep up with the movement of resources and personnel regionwide and respond to real-time data from an unfolding disaster.
"I think everyone has finally realized that we can't go it alone," said Matt Kallmyer, deputy emergency preparedness director for New Orleans. "In emergency management, we no longer talk about 'my parish' or 'your parish.' It's now a regional system, and we wholeheartedly accept that and are moving ahead.
"If a neighbor needs assistance, we will have the procedures in place to quickly cross parish lines and give them help," he said.
Although emergency personnel and public officials will still make their own jurisdictions top priority, they say they now will have plans in place to help tend to one another whenever resources and circumstances allow.
"For years, people said, 'This is the way it's always been done,' or 'We've never done it this way,' " Kallmyer said. "It's sad that it took Katrina to do it, but that mind-set from the old days is gone."
'A common platform'
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security provided the money for the WebEOC software, developed by Emergency Services integrators of Augusta, Ga. It's already in place at the Louisiana emergency operations center in Baton Rouge.
"This software will give us a common platform to share information. We're all so tied together at the hip that anything that happens to any major highway, bridge or levee affects us all," said Deano Bonano, deputy chief administrative assistant to Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard.
In the event a disaster disables the emergency center in any of the four parishes, decision-makers and emergency personnel can move to one of the three remaining partner centers -- or anywhere with computer access -- to resume managing the crisis.
The Web-based system will also enable public officials who evacuate ahead of a hurricane to monitor and help manage an emergency from afar.
The password-protected system, not available to the general public, will have chat rooms and message boards for officials to communicate online. Its manufacturer boasts that the average emergency responder can be trained on the software in 10 minutes, yet still remember how to use it six months later.
One of the most unusual aspects of WebEOC is that it is designed to ensure that no request for aid gets lost. It uses specific colors to grab attention and help track a request's progress through the emergency management system.
For example, if the Lake Borgne Levee District loses a critical piece of equipment to rising water, operators in the St. Bernard emergency center could enter a request for replacement equipment. The request would then pop up in fluorescent yellow letters on video monitors in all emergency centers, and the color wouldn't change until an operator opened the request and passed it along to an appropriate agency for response. As the request moves through channels, it changes colors to reflect its current status. It changes to gray and fades into the background when it is answered and no longer needs attention.
A new concept
The four parishes also plan to participate in a "fusion center," a relatively new concept that has gained popularity since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The federal government has pushed their development as nerve centers from which to collect and evaluate terrorist-related intelligence. But an increasing number of fusion centers are being tailored to manage all types of emergencies, from natural disasters and industrial accidents to terrorist incidents.
Some local emergency managers say they expect the regional fusion center will be established in East Jefferson, but Bonano would not say because officials in the four parishes have not yet adopted a mutual aid agreement and or signed off on operating procedures for the center.
Wherever it is located, the center won't be part of any parish's emergency operations center but will serve as a regional resource for all four. In addition, Bonano said a growing number of state and federal agencies are signing on to send representatives to the center where, during emergencies, they will collaborate to solve complex problems that can't be quickly handled by any individual emergency center staffs.
"In part, the fusion center will provide redundancy so that absolutely nothing can fall through the cracks because we'll have warm bodies in one location," Bonano said. "But there are also some decisions that require back-and-forth discussion. It requires that people sit face-to-face to get something hammered out. That will be done in the fusion center."
Another key feature of the new four-parish plan is a regional command center, to be established somewhere in East Jefferson, to help manage evacuation of the public.
"This will be us working together to make the best use of our resources and to manage the evacuation based on changing conditions or problems that come up," Kallmyer said.
And even as officials in Jefferson and Orleans spar over management of the 17th Street Canal, emergency officials said they have no reason to think officials in the two parishes won't sign the regional mutual aid agreement. It would have all parties agree to help one another and to share resources through the fusion center.
"It's unprecedented," Bonano said.
No amount of planning can eliminate the chaos that attends a major disaster such as the one that unfolded Aug. 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina barreled into Louisiana's eastern flank and coastal Mississippi with the largest storm surge ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico. But emergency managers, first-responders and decision-makers at all levels of government have since acknowledged the need to make sweeping changes before the next catastrophe.
"There are a lot of lessons learned from Katrina, and the biggest by far was that none of us were as prepared as we thought we were for a catastrophe of that size," said engineer Bob Turner, the Lake Borgne Levee District executive director who helped keep pump stations in St. Bernard working until Katrina's storm surge swamped them.
"I think all of us have taken a step back and figured out how to improve our own operations and to establish better working relationships across political boundaries," he said. "As a result, I think we're much better prepared today than we were in August of 2005, and if we had another Katrina, hopefully the severity of problems would be less."