By John Linstrom, Community Engagement Manager, AtHoc Division of Blackberry
One of the key issues that continues to frustrate emergency management operators at transportation hubs is the inability to contact individuals outside the reach of the agency’s communications infrastructure, or at surrounding organizations not linked into a collaborative framework.
The need for these capabilities is compelling. A train derailment can lead to a toxic cloud being released near a population center. Response to a plane crash might be delayed because civilian traffic impedes the ability of first responders to reach the site. A flood in a port area could cause hazardous substances to leak from an industrial plant or storage tank, spreading poisonous discharge across thousands of acres downstream.
Events away from a transportation hub can also have widely dispersed effects. If an area has been quarantined due to a natural disaster or industrial accident, freight and carriage companies need to be able to locate their vehicles immediately and reroute them to safe locations.
Potential terrorist activity only adds to the urgency. The unique nature of any transportation hub means that parts of the facility can be secured aggressively, but other sections must allow open flows of large numbers of people. With so many individuals seeking to step onto a train, plane, bus, ship, tram, or taxi, transportation centers are and will remain, prime targets for attack.
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Many transportation organizations already have some means for internal emergency alerting within individual facilities. The next step for crisis management is to automate and extend those capabilities, so that multiple organizations and communities can coordinate their response, collaborating so that all available resources are used as efficiently as possible to contain the situation and accelerate recovery.
Two recent technological innovations have brought us much closer to universal collaborative emergency response. The first innovation links data-driven, highly automated crisis communication systems with other forms of emergency preparedness software, enabling faster, more accurate transfer of information that gives emergency managers critical insight into the situation at hand.
For example, industrial plants at a port authority can use one automated system to catalog all hazardous chemicals stored in that facility – and where in that plant the substances are being used at any given date and time – connected directly to the emergency alerting system. If the plant receives an emergency alert from the port, the combined system immediately polls the plant to identify any operations that might lead to an explosion, fire, or leak, given the nature of the emergency at hand. The plant can then initiate the appropriate emergency plan.
This system works in the outbound direction, too. A spill within a plant might be a minor incident, with no dangerous substances involved. If so, the port’s overall emergency alerting system can automatically issue an all clear signal, except for the part of the plant directly affected. A more significant incident can lead the port to expand the initial alert, triggering evacuation and safe-harbor directives to a much wider area and organizing the appropriate first responder teams to address the situation.
These processes happen without human intervention. This same level of investigation and communication would take hours to days to gather and process manually – time that is not available when lives and property are on the line.
Another machine-to-machine application involves GPS trackers. If a train or bus is about to enter an area where an emergency has been declared, those vehicles now have the ability to “know” where they are and not to enter the locked-down area. These onboard GPS units use low-cost wireless radios to connect to the crisis communication platform. Traffic managers can shunt traffic to safe locations until the situation is resolved. The crisis communications system provides the crucial linkages so that these actions happen in near real time.
The second technological development is software and infrastructure that connects businesses, schools, churches, police, fire, and health professionals with the transportation hub’s emergency alerting system – securely and reliably. These solutions overcome a number of current obstacles, including:
- Incompatible emergency response systems
- No emergency response system
- Incompatible radio and other communications modalities
- Insecure methods of outreach, without the ability to validate receipt, such as social media
- Inability to account for the location and condition of all essential external recipients
The key is to leverage the devices almost everyone already carries. Authorized external personnel subscribe to the transportation hub’s emergency communications system using secured smartphone apps, as well as similar applications for laptops, desktops, and tablets. This subscription model ensures accurate contact information, and notifies managers if a critical outside organization no longer has a current connection on file.
These outreach capabilities enable the transportation hub to keep external agents accountable during crises. Individuals who need to be reached during an emergency must acknowledge their status and availability. If they cannot be reached, the system assumes they are at risk, and automatically moves to the next available resource while informing first responders that a rescue might be required.
In effect, this technology turns the transportation hub into a communications hub for the surrounding area. Command posts and respond teams can use the system to coordinate their activities and collaborate on the most effective means to resolve the crisis. Since the information being transmitted is both controlled and secured, recipients know that they can trust what they are being told, and what they are being asked to do.
Transportation authorities must leverage these latest evolutions in crisis communication technology to prevent service disruption and protect passengers, employees, vendors, and surrounding neighborhoods. Given the unique position of these entities within their geographic and economic surroundings, adoption of these innovations will help transportation organizations deliver essential information, situational awareness, and real-time alerts and warnings during emergencies – faster and with greater automation. That is the transportation industry’s pathway to better emergency preparedness and response, now and in the future.
For more information on how AtHoc can enhance emergency communication coordination and collaboration at transportation facilities, please visit the AtHoc website, or request a free demonstration.
AtHoc, a division of BlackBerry Limited, is the pioneer and recognized leader in networked crisis communication, protecting millions of people and thousands of organizations around the world. AtHoc provides a seamless and reliable exchange of critical information among organizations, their people, devices, and external entities.
A trusted partner to the world’s most demanding customers, AtHoc is the leading provider to the U.S. Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, and safeguards numerous other government agencies and leading commercial enterprises. Headquartered in Silicon Valley, the company operates around the globe.