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News | Jan. 10, 2018

In a crisis, data-sharing app helps put pieces together

By Hugh Lessig (Daily Press) Joint Task Force Civil Support

A major crisis has hit a big city. Maybe a chemical attack or a radiation incident. Your job is decontamination, and it would really help to know the location of every fire hydrant in the city. Fast.

Now there’s an app for that. And it does a lot more.

Joint Task Force-Civil Support, a command based at Fort Eustis, has put the finishing touches on an application that, in the event of a crisis, allows information sharing across federal, state and local agencies, between commanders and people on the ground, and enables operators to pull in local
data on utilities and infrastructure.

Considering the task force’s mission, it should prove a valuable tool.

The task force is charged with assisting civil authorities anywhere in the country in case of a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incident. It also deploys in humanitarian crises—recently helping out in Puerto Rico, for example—and provides staff at major events, such as the presidential inauguration, as a preventive measure.

From its Eustis headquarters, the staff can call on 5,200 military personnel across the uniformed services who are trained to respond. The task force falls under U.S. Northern Command.

On a recent December afternoon, a few personnel convened in a chilly hangar at Felker Army Airfield to ask questions and view a demonstration of the app, which goes by the acronym J-HUA. The last three letters stand for Holistic Understanding Application.

Understanding the whole picture, or a specialized slice of the picture, describes what this app is about, officials say. Harold “Richie” Richardson, Geographic Information System (GIS) manager, said the app allows field personnel to report significant developments on the ground and keep track of different mission assignments. A dashboard-type setup can show broader view.

GIS mapping technology is nothing new. It allows users to see, analyze and interpret data to figure out patterns and trends. A local government might use GIS mapping to determine the best location for a new fire station, for example.

“We are applying the technology in a way that hasn’t been used in the past,” Richardson said.

The joint task force can be sent anywhere in the country to support civil authorities in the event of a crisis. Members never know where they’re going or which agencies they’ll work with, so any system has to be flexible. The application allows task force members to track their own work as well as the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency or other groups. Everyone can see everyone else’s data.

“We need to make sure that our commander has the same information the fire chief has," Richardson said, "and that the fire chief has the same information about us that our commander has.”

Richardson can draw data from civil authorities to give the task force a better picture of what’s happening.

“The city of Houston has a site where they have all their utility information,” Richardson said. “So if we have a unit that’s doing mass decontamination and they’re looking for fire hydrants, I don’t maintain data on all fire hydrants in the country. I can go to the city of Houston’s GIS, find that information and bring it into ours.”

Mission assignments are keyword searchable .The task force can call up a list of all humanitarian-related missions, such as water distribution sites or shelters for displaced victims. Evacuation routes maintained by VDOT can be imported into the system.

“It allows the user to inform themselves, not just on what we’re doing, but what our partners are doing,” Richardson said.

Some years back, Richardson recalled a discussion with a FEMA official on how the federal agency responded to the 2011 tornadoes in Joplin, Mo. There was no common operating picture so federal officials built one on the fly. That same year, FEMA responded to tornadoes in Alabama and relied on a system called Virtual Alabama, a visualization tool used by first responders and others.

Richardson was impressed that FEMA could adapt so quickly in the Joplin case. But it didn’t seem like the most efficient way to operate.

“There is a lot of risk associated with that,” he said. “There’s no consistency, nothing to train against. This platform gives us something to train against and also be inter-operable.”

And in the case of Alabama, the task force could pull in data from that system.

The J-HUA application is new and ready to go. Richardson said it’s a big improvement over reading situation reports and pushing out information at a slower pace. That forced the task force to prioritize some requests over others, and that wasn’t acceptable.

“We can’t tell people no,” he said.