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Ref: New technologies to help coordination and response capabilities researchers say

State College

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Collaborative technologies provide means to improve emergency response

03/02/2007 12:00 am
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University Park, Pa.--Collaborative technologies may help emergency responders and emergency planners share and exploit what they know, thereby minimizing errors and improving response effectiveness, according to a team of researchers in the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST).

Currently, an imbalance or "knowledge gap" exists between the two groups. Front-line responders possess deep, localized knowledge of what works and what doesn't when responding to actual emergencies. Planners, on the other hand, carefully consider all facets of a potential emergency as they develop extensive emergency-management plans, said Steven Haynes, lead researcher and assistant professor of information sciences and technology.

"Collaborative technologies can enable knowledge sharing which can make a real difference to the organizational effectiveness of both groups," Haynes said. "And when knowledge is shared, communication is improved, and fewer mistakes occur."

The researchers' findings are described in a paper, "Leveraging and Limiting Practical Drift in Emergency Response Planning," given at the recent Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. The research received the conference's "Best Paper Award" in the knowledge-management track. Co-authors are Wendy A. Schafer, a former IST postdoctoral scholar, and Jack Carroll, the Edward M. Frymoyer Professor of Information Sciences and Technology.

In drawing their conclusions, the researchers looked at how two groups approach emergency-response and emergency-preparedness planning: officers and civilians involved in anti-terrorism and force protection (ATFP) planning for U.S. Marine Corps' installations, and volunteer emergency responders in a rural central Pennsylvania region assigned to a local, paid emergency-management coordinator.

While the experiences of each group differed in how they planned or responded to emergencies, some general problems were apparent across the two groups. Both experienced personnel turnover, for instance. At Marine Corps' installations, the turnover was the result of normal rotational patterns, while in central Pennsylvania, turnover occurred as volunteers changed jobs or priorities and stopped volunteering. For both groups, the turnover created knowledge gaps.

Communication issues also occurred. The researchers found that the military's chain-of-command decision-making structure often blocked communication between planners and responders. The lack of an organizational hierarchy among emergency responders in rural Pennsylvania also hindered knowledge sharing, also resulting in knowledge gaps.

The researchers also found that both groups depended upon contractors and consultants with specialist knowledge as plans and contingencies were developed. But often that knowledge was "hidden" or "invisible" to the responders who never learned the rationales for decisions-further contributing to the planning-experience gap.

In the paper, the researchers suggest that collaborative, knowledge-sharing technologies can lessen the knowledge gaps by encouraging and improving information sharing. One of those technologies involves creation of repositories of lessons learned by responders during actual events. These would give planners access to responders' in-the-field innovations to be incorporated into future planning.

"Reachback" technologies-that is, technologies designed to tap all knowledge resources useful in a crisis-is another. These enable responders in the field to obtain access to the important rationales underlying plans.

The researchers are now developing collaborative and other technologies to improve interaction and coordination between responders and planners. The research was supported by the United State Marine Corps and the Penn State Office of Strategic Initiatives.

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