Working across borders for better disaster management
When disaster strikes, seamless coordination among emergency services is essential. But how can services work together and effectively share potentially life-saving information across borders? Four EU-funded projects have developed techniques to enable emergency workers to work better together and coordinate their responses.
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Ensuring that the various systems used by emergency services across Europe can interoperate, interconnect and communicate effectively is a significant challenge. When an emergency occurs, first responders need to be able to communicate and exchange information seamlessly.
However, they use different systems and, when operating cross-border, may not speak a common language, or may be used to communicating differently.
A unified response
Four EU-funded research projects EPISECC, ReDIRNET, SecInCoRe and SECTOR have worked closely together to demonstrate solutions, suggest possible approaches to their implementation and to provide feedback to the emergency services.
The starting point for all the projects was to compile the experiences gained from previous major emergencies and disasters across Europe, says SECTOR project coordinator Elena Francioni of E-GEOS, Italy.
“We all took different approaches to the objective of establishing inventories of previous critical disasters in Europe,” she explains. “But the outcomes all showed the need for a common language, the current lack of information exchange as the major challenge and the need for new data models and communication protocols.”
Transfer of sensitive data between authorities is seen as a big issue and ease of access to the inventories for all emergency services is a key success factor for the projects. All four projects have created pan-European inventories that are able to generate analysis and statistics on crises and responses to them.
From a hardware perspective, the SECTOR project focused on technical interfaces through the development of ‘interoperability boxes’. These allow different information systems to work together effectively by transferring data between formats so it can be used on otherwise incompatible systems. The system was successfully demonstrated at an event in Rome that simulated a major flooding incident in central Europe.
Such enhanced interoperability is the number one request from stakeholders involved in European disaster management, says EPISECC project coordinator Georg Neubauer of AIT Austrian Institute of Technology, Austria.
“Enhanced interoperability the ability to make different systems operate together was the common objective for all four projects,” he says. “From the start the projects have worked together to deliver four complementary approaches that build a shared vision for Common Information Spaces.”
The idea of a Common Information Space is the key concept behind the solutions devised by the projects; a forum a physical or a cloud-based virtual ‘office’ that connects data service providers with consumers and reduces complexity.
The Common Information Space enables data to be shared swiftly, securely and reliably between the various emergency service systems and includes a range of tools to ensure effective communication and most importantly understanding.
EPISECC’s solution is a common information enabling the exchange of information within and between agencies and countries. The solution included the option to annotate communications to ensure that they were properly understood.
What do they mean?
The issue of conveying correct meaning between languages and different operational cultures is not easy. Significant effort was needed to discover, list and relate the different words or phrases used by emergency services across Europe in their work.
“Enabling semantic interoperability is essential,” says SecInCoRe project coordinator Jens Pottebaum of Universität Paderborn, Germany. “Our objective was to derive a common ‘crisis’ taxonomy for use at the European level. This is more than translation of language between systems.” A common taxonomy allows the transfer of relevant data and information during different operating systems and first responders.
SecInCoRe worked on a cloud-based inventory that cross-linked relevant words and terms. The project also investigated access to data via multiple links including challenges for preparedness and providing secure roaming access for emergency services in the field.
Ethical, legal and social issues are important aspects when sharing data. SecInCoRe formulated a set of ‘soft’ standards or guidelines that has assisted all four projects in the design of their systems and processes to, for example, protect personal data privacy for medical records.
Sound and vision
Networked communication systems are the technical ‘nuts and bolts’ of interoperability. “This is a significant challenge especially for cross-border, cross-agency scenarios,” says Nikolaos Matskanis, a researcher in the ReDIRNET project. “There are a variety of inputs from a set of agencies running different information systems and they must be able to provide a range of useful outputs to other agencies through network-enabled communications.”
ReDIRNET focused on integrating data inputs. By using the project’s platform, emergency services can control which data fields are visible to other partners, while external agencies can search for data outputs from other agencies and, when the operational need requires, request to link to them with a single ‘click’.
The inputs can come from a variety of sources, including voice, data, images, video, CCTV and remote sensors. The project concluded its work with a simulated tunnel accident that demonstrated how three agencies can successfully work together across borders.
How to implement?
Underlying both technical and operational issues is standardisation. This covers both establishing a common terminology and a range of technical issues; it also requires a very long-term effort. The four projects have already established a basis to continue to work together. A CEN standardisation workshop on terminologies in crisis and disaster management took place at the beginning of March 2017: the first step in the harmonisation process.
The big question now is, how does the research move to wider scale implementation that can save lives?
“We need to integrate our outcomes to define an overall solution,” says Elena Francioni.
And the projects are continuing to work together to do this. A summary of the combined outcomes of the four projects is being prepared and further presentations and exercises are planned to create more motivation and enthusiasm for the project outcomes. This will include demonstration results that show that the technologies could significantly reduce the average time to intervention for emergency services through better resource management.
“It is important that we spread the project results as soon as possible,” says Jens Pottebaum. “There is no problem in creating technology that fits the use case and in having first responders being engaged and convinced of its potential, but we need to bridge the gap to actual procurement of systems.”
“Establishing a common information space is crucial to improve the reliability and timing of information to frontline services,” concludes Georg Neubauer. “Speeding up data availability really improves overall management of emergency situations and can save lives.”
EPISECC Project website
EPISECC Project details
REDIRNET Project website
REDIRNET Project details
SECINCORE Project website
SECINCORE Project details
SECTOR Project website
SECTOR Project details