Emergency management directors throughout the United States make decisions daily and sometimes minute by minute that protect lives and property in emergency situations and during special events. Decisions conducted during preparedness planning, incident management and recovery operations affect the lives of thousands of people and millions of dollars of infrastructure. These decisions should be based on timely information obtained from a myriad of disparate data sources integrated and collated through interoperable system platforms.
One major decision that emergency management directors must make on a recurring basis is the selection of technology tools for their organization that will improve information sharing and analysis to support these life-safety decisions. Each year more software tools are developed by various private-sector companies that support this effort. Directors must expend substantial time and effort to learn the capabilities, applications, training requirements, efficiencies and limitations of the products to make informed decisions for procurement and integration with their existing legacy systems.
To support National Incident Management System (NIMS) implementation, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security established the NIMS Support Center in 2005 — a program that currently operates under the NIMS General Support Contract between FEMA and the Science Applications International Corp. The NIMS Support Center provides direct support to the National Integration Center of FEMA’s National Preparedness Directorate. As a program, the NIMS Support Center provides FEMA and the response community with a suite of products and services to offer a comprehensive, nationwide and systematic approach to incident management.
Through the NIMS Support Center, FEMA offers a project to assist the response community with interoperability test and evaluation (T&E). The center manages the NIMS Supporting Technology Evaluation Program (NIMS STEP), which conducts T&E of technologies relating to incident management and response. T&E activities verify commercial and government software and hardware product interoperability, and provide the response community with reports to support purchasing decisions. NIMS STEP evaluates incident management-related software and hardware against NIMS criteria, core target capabilities and NIMS technical standards. This service is provided free of charge to the community.
The products evaluated fall into one or more of the following categories:
- alert and warning systems;
- incident management;
- communication and network infrastructure;
- vulnerability analysis and consequence assessment;
- intelligence and analysis;
- physical security, cyber-security, access control and surveillance; and
- preparedness tools.
Evaluations are designed to expand technology solutions and provide the emergency response community with an objective process to evaluate their purchases. NIMS STEP uses an accredited testing laboratory — the Incident Management Test and Evaluation Laboratory (IMTEL) — located in Somerset, Ky., for conducting T&E activities. IMTEL leverages the NIMS Support Center infrastructure to evaluate products for the following:
- Incorporation of NIMS concepts and principles.
- Support to the Target Capabilities List.
- Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) version 1.1 and 1.2 standards.
- OASIS Emergency Data Exchange Language-Distribution Element (EDXL-DE) 1.0 standard.
- OASIS EDXL — Hospital Availability Exchange (EDXL-HAVE) 1.0 standard.
- OASIS EDXL-Resource Messaging (EDXL-RM) 1.0 standard.
Evaluations are completed primarily in a controlled, simulated, emergency operations center-based environment with a team consisting of multiple assessors. Each product is evaluated by assessors who are recognized experts in the field of emergency management and response. Teams have an opportunity to review new and emerging technologies within their area of expertise. Assessors must meet minimum qualifications in their discipline, including years of experience, training credentials and experience in responding to real-world incidents.
Since there’s variation in system capabilities, NIMS STEP has developed several tiers of evaluations, ranging from emergency support software to products actively used in response and recovery with clear ties to NIMS Incident Command. A technical component is added to an evaluation if the product implements one or more of the NIMS Recommended Technical Standards (CAP, EDXL-DE, EDXL-HAVE or EDXL-RM).
Each vendor receives a copy of the evaluation report, which includes feedback from end-user representatives and test engineers. There are several uses for the results of the evaluations. The report allows a vendor to show to users a commitment to NIMS and the use of recommended standards to maintain interoperability with other applications or platforms. The results may support the vendor in identifying areas for enhancement during future development of the product. The report will also identify the capabilities of the system as related to its incorporation of NIMS concepts and principles, core target capabilities, as well as the product’s adherence to applicable technical standards.
Results from evaluations are posted on the Responder Knowledge Base website when the product meets a minimum rating threshold. This website provides government officials and other end-users access to evaluated products and results. Evaluation results have benefits to the emergency management and response personnel. The benefits include access to reports from a consistent and unbiased evaluation, and NIMS technical standards and criteria for reference when purchasing hardware and software off the shelf or in requests for proposals when developing new products.
Emergency management directors and other jurisdictional officials involved in procurement and operations of emergency support technology tools are encouraged to visit the websites for the NIMS Supporting Technology Evaluation Program, https://www.nimsstep.org and FEMA’s Responder Knowledge Base, https://www.rkb.us. These websites provide the results of numerous evaluations on emerging technologies that will assist in grant writing, requests for proposals and procurement decisions. The information may prove invaluable in our efforts to get the right tools to support our critical decision-making.
Jeff Walker is the director of Licking County, Ohio, Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security; a member of the NIMS STEP Working Group; and second vice president for the International Association of Emergency Managers.