On a seemingly quiet sunny winter day, more than 90 first responders gathered at the Port of Houston’s Sam Houston Pavilion in Texas with response vehicles, vessels, and a mobile command center to engage in a simulated multi-effort emergency response to an accidental release of a volatile chemical on the Houston Ship Channel. First responders readied themselves as crew members from the vessel U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Hatchet and civilians from the Sam Houston tour boat arrived at the dock displaying symptoms of exposure to a chemical substance.
As the scenario unfolded, responders continuously assessed the efficiency and interoperability of next generation response technology, ensuring collected data provided the situational awareness they needed to provide efficient and timely response to victims.
This was a joint event. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) partnered with 13 Houston-area public safety agencies, 19 industry partners and DHS components, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Sector Houston-Galveston, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and DHS S&T National Urban Security Technology Laboratory (NUSTL) to hold the Next Generation First Responder Program (NGFR)– Harris County Operational Experiment (OpEx).
The experiment built upon a series of NGFR Integration Demonstrations and was the largest coordination for the program’s experiments to date. With more than 200 participants overall, the OpEx tested 23 different technologies using guidance from the NGFR Integration Handbook. The technologies spanned areas in responder and patient physiological monitoring sensors, indoor location tracking, HAZMAT sensors, smart alerting for responders and incident command, advanced data analytics, and situational awareness and collaboration dashboards. DHS S&T and responders evaluated how these DHS-developed and commercial technologies integrated with existing public safety systems and how those integrated capabilities enhanced operational communications, increased operational coordination, improved responder safety and augmented situational awareness.
For Harris County and Houston-area public safety agencies, the OpEx provided the first instance in which multiple agencies across the region participated in a collegial coordinated effort with the Port of Houston with data flows from so many technologies.
DHS S&T chose Houston-area partners for the experiment because the area represents many urban area response agencies across the nation that have significant collaboration and information-sharing needs. The area has also served as a testbed for next generation response technologies in the past.
“The Port environment creates operational gaps for us,” said Rodney Reed, Assistant Chief of Operational Support for the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office. “Having the OpEx at the Port provided a platform where we have land-based and water-based operations and it brings together fire, EMS and law enforcement from multiple agencies and emergency operations from around the county and the city.”
“In this experiment the key data points are how to get multi-jurisdictions responding to an event to share information and situational awareness through sensors and communication systems,” said DHS S&T Program Manager and OpEx Director Sridhar Kowdley. “We’re now looking at integrating and fusing these technologies and incident command on various situational awareness platforms or dashboards.”
Situational awareness for responders as well as patients and victims in the field, proved to be a key point for many first responders who participated in the exercise.
“What we saw during this exercise with on-body sensors for responders and simulated patients and victims, is that we are able to move all that data back to the situational awareness screens during mission critical incidents,” said Reed. “We’re now going from a thousand words to a ‘picture is worth a thousand words.’”
For many first responders in the exercise, the OpEx provided an opportunity to experience operating technology in a seamless integrated system. While most responders appreciate new advancements in technology, many realize that introducing new technologies in a disparate manner creates other challenges.
“Nobody wants to have to run five laptops at a time to keep track of five different systems all because you can’t run them all on the same operational platform,” said Fire Chief Amy Ramon, of the Cy-Fair Volunteer Fire Department in Houston.
Multiple system platforms are not the only issue. According to Sergeant Carlton Horton of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, seamless technology integration takes some of the pressure off responders in emergency situations.
“Of course responders like new gadgets that can help us carry out the mission,” said Horton. “The problem is that we already have so much on us when dealing with an incident, we don’t want to have to hold on to an additional piece of equipment.”
“You need technology that integrates with the technology we’re already carrying,” said Ramon.
“Through this OpEx, DHS S&T is providing a way for vendors to work together so that systems can integrate with our existing technologies, which is so important.”
Industry who partnered with DHS S&T had the opportunity to not only outfit responders with their technology – they were able to observe how their technology reacted in an operational environment while receiving direct feedback on how to improve their functionality, interoperability and address real user requirements. This was something that most “said” would never have the opportunity to witness. The OpEx also provided industry to directly partner with the Houston-area agencies upon its conclusion.
“Since the OpEx, we’ve had the opportunity to work with a few of the technology vendors, one specifically on an ongoing project dealing with incident command and situational platforms,” said Ramon. “This is something we never imagined we would do.”
NGFR will produce several case studies, guides and an after action report highlighting lessons-learned and successes from the OpEx. These knowledge products will be available to the general public to review in late summer 2019.
“We invite industry to review what we’ve done at the OpEx,” said Kowdley. “These products, along with the NGFR Integration Handbook will allow these spheres to evaluate their technologies and hopefully guide them in their research development.”
Kowdley also invites public safety agencies to review as well and provide feedback, as the knowledge products will help agencies assess their existing technologies as well as guide them when acquiring new technologies that are interoperable.
This year as part of the conclusion of the NGFR program, NGFR will hold its last operational experiment, the NGFR – Birmingham Shaken Fury OpEx in August 2019 as part of a larger FEMA sponsored Shaken Fury exercise.
For more information on upcoming case studies, the NGFR – Harris County After Action report and the upcoming NGFR – Birmingham Shaken Fury OpEx, please email: NGFR@hq.dhs.gov.
For industry interested in partnering with DHS S&T for future technology experiments, please visit:
1. EMT responders tend a responder with a simulated cardiac arrest; vital sign information was transmitted wirelessly to the incident command.
2. EMT responders treated a simulated victim.
3. Patients exposed to a simulated gas leak begin initial decontamination process.
4. Responders in HazMat Suits offload passengers exposed to a simulated gas leak on the Sam Houston tour boat.