Accessing and sharing information between various agencies and organizations may be challenging, but are necessary for developing effective situational and operational awareness. The National Information Sharing Consortium (NISC) formalized an approach for such interagency communication. By operationalizing these capabilities, NISC creates dialogue and closes communication gaps.
Data and information sharing are critical elements to understanding and enhancing a community’s resilience. The first step is toentify a normal baseline of daily life/activities in a community. Defining a baseline is important because it provides the norm, which can be compared to a new activity level caused by a natural or manmade disaster – for example, incidents, power outages, storm surge, road closures, and evacuations. Today more than ever, a diverse dataset is available from local, state, and national/federal sources to help understand the norm and to measure against the new activity level. To this end, the NISC in cooperation with the Incident Management Information Sharing Subcommittee is working on the development on a list of essential elements of information that have been reviewed by numerous incidents and training exercises as a starting reference point.
This knowledge combined with available and affordable technology provides near real-time situational awareness that can be readily shared with other people and other organizations simultaneously without relying on voice technology. As a result, situational awareness may be updated and monitored by tribal, local, state, federal agencies, and national organizations in order to know: (a) what is happening; (b) where it is happening; and (c) the magnitude of the situation. This then can facilitate the process of moving forward with resources to assist the impacted area.
Categorizing Critical Properties The successful utilization of data is based on several factors, including: governance, standard operating procedures, data, training, and usage. The process may likely begin with data discovery or learning what data is available from various sources (local, state, and national) and then how this data can be used to recognize a community’s situation – for example, daily normal stats, increased emergency responses, and catastrophic events. Many people and organizations are not even aware of the vast amount of information and geospatial data that is available and accessible at the local level, or how this information can be related to normal versus unusual situations. A tip for local responders is to begin a dialogue with the local geographic information system coordinator to share information needs, toentify available information, and to determine how the information can be accessed and used.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) SAFECOM Interoperability Continuum can be used to provide a template to guide effective information sharing processes, the critical elements properties of which are categorized by the following “lanes”:
Governanceentifies oversight and defines roles and responsibilities necessary for information sharing.
Standard operating procedures define what, when, and how information will be shared and with whom.
Training and exercises are required to ensure that all involved know how to effectively share the information.
Usage becomes most relevant or applicable when the process of information sharing or exchange is used on a daily basis and transforms situational awareness into daily operational awareness. Operational awareness then becomes the norm and establishes an organization’s or locality’s baseline from which to better understand the impact that a significant event or emergency incident is having on the organization or locality.
Technology (data and voice) is addressed last because of the criticality of data and the determination of what technology is needed.
How data is managed, organized, and published ultimately determines how effectively information can be shared. Once the other lanes of the continuum have been addressed, use of data can be most productive when it exists in a standardized data format and is managed within a common and shared data folder architecture and common symbology (for geospatial visualization). When the data lane is clearlyentified, accessible, and in the right format, it simplifies how information can be shared and enhances the way it can publish, access, consume, and share the information through various technologies.
Information Sharing & Incident Management The National Information Sharing Consortium (NISC) was organized toentify the necessary steps for developing an effective information sharing environment. National security data is growing in volume and complexity almost daily, challenging end users to screen applicable as well as any unnecessary data and information. Stakeholder input, participation, and collaboration are needed so government at all levels canentify and categorize threats (both natural and human caused) and effectively mitigate or respond to incidents when needed. A rigorous approach is needed to establish critical information sharing requirements, which would help frame standards-based approaches for both information sharing and incident management. The NISC is dedicated to addressing this critical endeavor and bases its initiatives and activities on a coordinated approach that validates needs and requirements, minimizes culls emerging gaps, promotes best practices, maximizes situational/operational awareness capabilities, and influences policy and grant guidance (see Figure 1).
The organization’s leadership has been working with leadership of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate (DHS-S&T) and the White House program manager for the information sharing environment by co-chairing an advisory body – the Incident Management Information Sharing Subcommittee (IMIS-SC) – to develop a national strategy on information sharing. This strategy would help to standardize how information is shared between public safety disciplines, public service, all levels of government, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector. A reliable flow of information between all of these agencies and organizations is required to respond to and mitigate both daily emergency incidents and catastrophic natural and manmade disasters. The IMIS-SC’s focus is described in its charter as follows:
“To address the information sharing needs of federal, tribal, state, and local emergency management sectors, the White House Information Sharing and Access Interagency Policy Committee (ISA-IPC) has chartered the Incident Management Information Sharing Subcommittee (IMIS-SC). The IMIS-SC will provide guidance and policy recommendations to the ISA-IPC – from local, state, federal and industry perspectives – on ways to both expand and institutionalize nationwide incident management information sharing capabilities and system interoperability across the homeland security enterprise.”
The NISC also is taking a focused look at information sharing needs at the local level, specifically from the first responder perspective. The NISC was awarded a DHS Information Sharing grant in support of its “Local First Responder Information Sharing Decision Implementation Project” – a series of technical assistance engagements involving exploration of day-to-day operational needs within and across public safety disciplines. Emphasis will be placed on methods for managing information to enable informed decision making at every point in the chain of response. This would further include: (a) points that require state-level involvement; and (b) development of an information sharing model that can be replicated.
Building Capacity at the State & Local Levels Using the NISC’s coordinated approach, lessons learned and best practices from all its engagements and activities would inform the establishment of an information sharing environment that maximizes access to nationally relevant data. Access to this data would be accomplished in a multitude of ways, using a variety of technology tools that support publication, management, and sharing of data products. This would include but not be limited to aggregated web maps, applications, and direct access to data libraries. These efforts are conducted in partnership with DHS S&T as S&T’s transition partner for the Virtual USA® Program – a program that is focused on building capacity of state and local agencies’ incident management communications and information sharing capabilities. S&T’s ongoing national leadership role in advancing information sharing among all levels of government and the private sector underscores the critical importance of this partnership for helping the NISC reach its goals.
The NISC now has more than 100 local, state, and international organizations as members, and it continues to expand. For more information about the NISC, the NISC Portal (powered by ESRI ARCGIS Online), as well as how to join (its free for the public sector) and to get involved, visit the website at http://www.nisconsortium.org
Charles Werner is a 41-year veteran of the fire-rescue service who now serves as Chair of the National Information Sharing Consortium, Board of Directors for National Alliance for Public Safety GIS, and Co-Chair of the White House/U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Incident Management Information Sharing Subcommittee. He can be reached at email@example.com
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