Improving Information Sharing in the NYC Emergency Response Community

Kevin Harrison

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Information sharing between response agencies during large-scale emergencies operations in New York City (NYC) remains a challenge in 2018. Since 9/11, one of the major goals of emergency management has been to develop interoperability between response agencies. This thesis examines the issue of interoperability from the perspective of information sharing. Rather than trying to reinvent or alter the response community, this thesis proposes a two-pronged approach to first identify the actual information sharing attributes through conceptual modeling, and then use a model-based architecture to allow for information sharing between agencies utilizing the new and existing legacy systems. This thesis proposes a means of understanding and sharing information within the existing frameworks of the response community rather than reinventing the systems of the participating agencies. The focus of this thesis is on the ability to share information between NYC agencies during large-scale emergencies. After 9/11, a presidential directive mandated a nationwide effort to organize and train response agencies to follow the incident command system (ICS) organizational structure. While the ICS has provided a universal approach to emergency approach in terms of organizational structure and terminology, it has not addressed information sharing between response agencies.

Through a case study of NYC agencies’ responses to Puerto Rico for Hurricane Maria in Fall 2017, the current information environment during large-scale emergencies was assessed. As the third hurricane to strike the United States in 2017, the Hurricane Maria emergency response provided an opportunity to examine information sharing from experienced and knowledgeable responders. NYC agencies were deployed, as part of the overall national level roster of agencies, to assist in the response and recovery efforts. The NYC-based response assets used in the case study included the Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) New York Task Force 1 (NY-TF1), the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) Incident Management Team (IMT), and the NYC Department of Buildings (NYCDOB). This deployment provided the thesis the opportunity to examine the current state of information sharing of NYC agencies operating within a larger federal response during a large complex emergency response. The case study provided a current perspective on the challenges facing the response community regarding information sharing dealing specifically with the continued existence of information silos, the redundancy of effort from a lack of mission awareness between agencies, and the flow of information outside the hierarchal organization of the ICS. By using the Hurricane Maria response in 2017 of NYC agencies to Puerto Rico, the case study provided a compelling justification for the need to propose methods for understanding and improving information flow during emergency operations.

The potential for a conceptual model approach was evaluated from the lessons learned through the case study of Hurricane Maria. A conceptual model represents the architecture of a system in discrete terms accurately depicting the entities, attributes, and relations that compose the operating environment. In broader terms:

A conceptual model-based approach identifies, at a high level, the essential elements, attributes and behaviors of a system. These ‘concepts’ have pantropic meaning across agencies and domains, and are not tightly coupled or programmed to data or specific solutions. This perspective allows the many different implementations to be rapidly mapped to the conceptual model at a linear cost in effort vice, the current approach that tends toward geometric cost due to complexity.[1]

The conceptual model extends past the traditional response organizational charts and shows the basic system organization, common attributes of mission and information needs, and the flow of information during an emergency operation. The conceptual model in effect puts a meaningful description of the real world information environment on paper to allow an understanding of the unique attributes and relations that exist during an emergency operation.

Once an understanding of the information environment is achieved, through the conceptual model, a system must be developed to link the information systems together so that the needed information attributes and flow paths are established. This thesis proposed the use of open architecture framework and approach. An open architecture framework allows for the integration and interoperation of different systems and their data together while still maintaining their original system characteristics. As stated by Langford, open architecture must be “network-centric, assemble-to-description architecture is scalable, extensible, and expandable with minimal effort.”[2] This architecture is significantly different from the enterprise systems common to most agencies, where adding or linking a new system requires either the existing system or new system to be reconfigured or modified to allow for the integration. This integration can be a costly and labor-intensive process for the agency using the scarce budget and staff resources of agency information technology (IT) staff. The importance of being able to maintain legacy systems while still allowing information sharing cannot be over emphasized due to the training and costs already invested in (one off) solutions. Describing the existing state of emergency response agency technology environment, one researcher has stated:

There are thousands of stove-piped technologies that are becoming increasingly complex as they are upgraded and extended. With each layer of code laid over existing foundations, these applications and technologies become self-limiting as their inherent complexity begins to overwhelm machine and human capabilities to define and implement interactions.[3]

Thus, although building interoperability and information sharing within the response community has been strived for, many of these efforts have created new challenges to the information flow.

The conceptual modeling approach of this thesis provides a solution to identify and quantify the formal and informal flow of information between participants during large-scale complex emergencies. The analysis of the model-based platform has furthered the conceptual model approach by proposing a platform that can share distinct information required by agencies while maintaining their legacy systems. The analysis of the model-based framework shows how this approach may allow the information needs identified through the conceptual model to be effectively shared among agencies. The model-based framework’s ability to retrieve select information from different databases with different formats, all without the cost of altering existing systems, makes possible the information sharing detailed in the conceptual modeling approach.

During 2017, the United States experienced a range of large-scale emergencies from hurricanes along the eastern coast to record-sized wildfires in the west. These events all reinforced the need to gather and share information between agencies. To ensure its own preparedness, NYC must learn the lessons from these events. The case study of Hurricane Maria clearly described the impact of information gathering and sharing during large-scale emergencies. Information is the cornerstone of good decision making, and the use of the conceptual modeling and model-based platform has provided a potential framework for meeting the information needs of future emergency operations.

 

[1] Thomas Anderson, personal communication, January 28, 2017.

[2] Gary Langford, “GINA Network-Centric Assemble-to-Description Architecture National Maritime Intelligence-Integration Office (NIMO),” NMIO Technical Bulletin 6 (February 2014), http://hdl.handle.
net/10945/40315.

[3] Kenneth Stewart, “Researchers, Commanders Partner on Potential Networking Revolution,” Naval Postgraduate School, November 2, 2012, https://web.nps.edu/About/News/Researchers-Commanders-Partner-on-Potential-Networking-Revolution.html.

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