A tornado has just devastated a community on the border between the United States and Canada. Paramedics scramble to bring patients from over-crowded hospitals across the border. Communication blackouts and downed trees force ambulances to weave their way through blowing debris, fallen electrical lines, and car wrecks. The time for a routine trip from the injury site to the hospital has now tripled.
While this didn’t really happen, it was the focus in April when the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (S&T), the Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS) and Public Safety Canada collaborated on a cross-border experiment with a focus on preparing emergency responders for this type of scenario.
The fourth installment of the Canada-U.S. Enhanced Resiliency Experiment (CAUSE IV) unfolded in the aftermath of a fictional tornado along the Michigan-Ontario border—real first responders used real gear, vehicles, and standard operating procedures to ensure that citizens and communities remained safe and received necessary care during and after the “storm.”
CAUSE IV was designed to highlight critical aspects of an emergency of this magnitude: overarching situational awareness, reliable communications tools, public alerts and warning, and access to real time data for decision-making and resource allocation. The program consisted of two vignettes.
The first, led by DRDC CSS, focused on establishing a public safety broadband network (PSBN) for emergency responders crossing the U.S.-Canada border. The second vignette, led by S&T’s First Responders Group (FRG), examined the full disaster lifecycle, from resource planning to mutual aid, and tested how information from social media and 211 could provide situational awareness that could integrate with other data and effectively manage post-disaster response.
For example, during the experiment, information about a road obstruction was identified by digital volunteers on social media and a new route was relayed to the paramedics transporting a patient across the border.
S&T Program Manager Denis Gusty explained how each of the two vignettes were both critical components to achieving interoperability during the experiment, “You really couldn’t have one without the other. In the event of a large-scale natural disaster—in this case a simulated tornado—cross-border communication between hospitals, dispatchers and paramedics would be a central part of post-disaster management.”
The first vignette established a constant broadband connection between emergency responders as they shuttled “patients” across the border. Ambulances from St. Clair County (Michigan) and Lambton County (Ontario) tested voice, video and data applications and services.
“[The PSBN is] so critical for border towns, especially because we’re so close. If there is a disaster and we can’t communicate to each other—especially with our first responders and our ambulances—that can cause a detriment to our healthcare, ” said Betty Falecki, Lake Huron’s Director of Emergency Services and Preparedness.
When American ambulances cross over into Canada, the receiving Canadian hospitals are unable to communicate with them because each country currently operates on separate networks. Falecki explained, “They’re in a dead zone. Once [the ambulances] cross the borders they have no communication whatsoever with us. If we can establish that operability, we can become one.”
“CAUSE IV is really the first time we’ve built a stand-alone bridge between those two networks,” said Jeff Brooks, Deputy Manager of the County of Lambton EMS Department.
The public safety broadband network technology that was tested during the experiment operated in the 700 megahertz Band 14, which allowed CAUSE IV operators to seamlessly transmit data such as patient vital signs, electrocardiograms and live video in real time from hospital to hospital and ambulance to hospital.
The experiment consisted of two temporary public safety broadband networks. In order to accurately emulate both FirstNet in the United States and the future PSBN in Canada, the base stations were located in Port Huron, Michigan and Sarnia, Ontario but the evolved packed core networks (EPC) for both countries were located at the Communications Research Centre (CRC) in Ottawa, Canada. The entire vignette one system was designed and implemented by DRDC CSS, the Communications Research Centre Canada (CRC) and Texas A&M University.
“With this technology we’ll be able to maintain communication in the event that the patient deteriorates, there’s a problem with the vehicle, or the crew needs directions,” Brooks added. “Video conferencing with the physician that’s receiving the patient could potentially provide better managed patient care. Doctors will have more information and will be ready for the patients when they arrive.”
“Having all key stakeholders able to communicate via voice, data, or other situational awareness tools helped paramedics to perform time-critical medical interventions, which increased patient care,” said Doug Socha, DRDC CSS’s Paramedic Portfolio Manager.
The other element to CAUSE IV was the work S&T carried out in vignette two to test the use of social media and digital volunteers for enhanced situational awareness. This data was analyzed in real time to permit Emergency Operations Centers (EOC) to detect, evaluate, and plan improved response.
“Incident data collected from social media could inform the safest and fastest route for an ambulance crossing the border to take, saving time and ultimately, the lives of victims,” Gusty said.
This included various methods to utilize the ‘citizen as a sensor’ concept, including having trained weather spotters report current weather conditions using a GeoForm in the field, and digital volunteers submitting information to the EOC related to road blocks, downed trees, and flash floods observed in social media (on Twitter accounts created just for the CAUSE IV experiment). The data gained from the field reports was then automatically generated into a base map that included critical infrastructure and key information. EOC personnel could then make decisions on how to plan response efforts based on what the weather spotters reported in real time.
Jeff Friedland, Director of Homeland Security Emergency Management for St. Clair County, Michigan, noted how the experiment’s use of public participation digital volunteers could be essential for first responders moving forward. “CAUSE IV showed us how to mine social media and extract what is critical or what really pertains to us and apply it instantly to our maps.”
Another problem examined during vignette two was the struggle to allocate precious resources during post-disaster damage assessment.
Friedland said, “We’re also automating damage assessment that citizens fill out electronically. It tells us where we need to send our damage assessment personnel. It prioritizes all the damage in the county and records on a continuous basis, keeps track of the number of homes destroyed, along with major and minor damage.”
Illustrating what’s ahead for 211 call centers across Canada and the United States, Jennifer Tanner, Project Manager for 211 in Southwest Ontario, said, “We have all this information from callers that we’re able to share with municipalities and hopefully that information can help inform the decisions that are made in an EOC during an emergency.”
Experiment findings and lessons learned will be published in a CAUSE IV after-action report that will be posted in fall 2016 at www.dhs.gov/science-and-technology/first-responders.
For questions about CAUSE IV and the individual vignettes, email firstname.lastname@example.org.