By PATRICK STEPHENSON
BRUSSELS – Emergency responders in countries such as Italy and Spain face the same potential catastrophes such as earthquakes, but they remain deeply local in how they respond to disasters. The fragmentation is not just national. Local emergency responders such as firefighters, police, and border control officers often have trouble talking among themselves because they use different protocols and communications systems.
Developing an efficient means of information exchange would not just improve the cross-border EU response to natural disasters. It would also improve the ways the local EU responders confront emergencies, making for faster response times and saving lives.
During the past several years, two EU-funded projects have developed complementary projects for plugging the gaps that exist between cross-border responders as well as between cross-organisational responders such as firefighters, emergency medical responders and police. One is EPISECC (“Establish a Pan-European Information Space to Enhance seCurity of Citizens”), which is focused on improving links between regional disaster responders at the strategic and tactical level. The other is COncORDE (“Coordination Mechanisms for Medical Emergency Response”), which aims to improve communication among local medical emergency responders at the operational level.
Both share the goal of creating a seamless flow of information among all European emergency-response organisations and their personnel.
On 11 September the projects’ researchers, EU staffers, emergency-response experts and practitioners gathered in Brussels for a preview EPISECC and COncORDE’s final results.
Philippe Quevauviller of the European Commission’s policy department for migration and home affairs, opened the conference by referring to the difficulties of converting EU-funded research projects into marketable goods. “Often projects don’t find a route to the market because of the lack of interaction between actors [consumers] and providers,” he said. “If you don’t attract actors, [your project] will remain research at the end of the day.” The solution is “to be up to the market,” by contacting emergency responders and getting their feedback, he stressed.
Georg Neubauer of the Austrian Institute of Technology gave an overview of EPISECC. He noted that information-sharing between different disaster and emergency management stakeholders, domains and vendors is not easy due to the different types, sources, sizes, protocols and physical sensors surrounding data, not to mention varying human and machine languages.
The solution, he said, is a ‘common information space’ (CIS) that collects incoming information from different responders to a disaster, forms a common translation of that data, and then distributes it to other responders. To construct a CIS, the project first had to achieve a series of subsidiary goals.
First, EPISECC developed a pan-European inventory of past disasters. Information from these was fed into a taxonomy where “the problem was how to quantify the quantity of information exchange that took place in past disasters,” Neubauer said. “This was our starting point.”
The taxonomy formed the building-blocks for a CIS interoperable with legacy emergency-response systems across the EU. The CIS itself is a network of servers that connects all responders to a disaster together. The tangible result, shown to conference participants in photos, is a computerised headquarters with banks of screens that display who is doing what to address a disaster’s aftermath.
EPISECC’s second speaker, Uberto Delprato, described the results of the project’s proof-of-concept event held on 12 May in Italy’s Friuli Venezia Giulia region on the border with Slovenia. There the exercise simulated emergency response to an earthquake in the town of Gorizia using EPISECC and its CIS. Participants included emergency responders from Italy, Slovenia and Austria.
He said the CIS allowed hardware with different protocols to exchange information but without modifying the hardware itself so that parties with different protocols could immediately enter into a data conversation. “People need to exchange information without thinking about it, or inventing a new method,” Delprato said. “If you want actors to work together, you have to allow all sides to work as they usually do.”
Although EPISECC’s ambition is to be adopted by regions across Europe, Delprato acknowledged that the Commission would probably not promote the project to its member states. Instead, Delprato hopes the project will “grow from the bottom-up, not from the top-down.” He cautioned that “we won’t see a European EPISECC in the short term.”
By contrast, the COncORDE project’s appeal may be more immediate. By focusing on operations, the project could attract the attention of emergency medical services (EMS) teams. As explained by project coordinator Toni Staykova of Cambridge University Hospitals, COncORDE would work both across borders or within them.
“What is the goal of information exchange?” she asked rhetorically. “To get the right patient at the right time to the right place.” Staykova explained that most hospitals already host a sophisticated set of information systems. But there’s a glaring gap on the ground of a disaster in that EMS teams often don’t know who else has been dispatched or where, what other teams are doing and which hospitals have been notified and how many victims and which injuries to expect when EMS teams arrive at the scene of a disaster.
“People watch movies and they think that we [EMS teams] know everything,” she said. “The reality is, we know nothing: we are working with primitive stuff.”
The key is “ground visibility”, she said. By using CIS to connect all responders to a single network, EMS teams would have a far better idea of what awaits them at a disaster site, while informing them about which nearby hospitals are sending ambulances.
COncCORDE said its CIS automatically sorts out tricky issues such as who is the field commander at any site, allowing others to slip immediately into their appropriate support roles. The project’s video of its field exercise in Greece showed that EMS teams quickly located the site of a disaster, identified the victims and performed instant triage by cataloguing their injuries into COcnCORDE’s CIS. This allowed ambulances and hospitals to better prepare for the arrival of casualties.
The best thing, according to Staykova, is that COncCORDE improves EMS team response by getting long-standing logistical and communication issues out of their way. “This new service does not require changes in usual practice,” she said. “It helps EMS [teams] do better what they usually do.”
But even COncCORDE – with its offer of a local solution – would still have to cross the infamous “valley of death” between research and commercialisation by opening up the purse of public authority bean-counters. Only cold hard cash outlays will create a common information space between EMS teams on the ground, regardless of a technology’s advantages.
Unfortunately, those outlays are still not forthcoming at regional and local levels across Europe, much less between national authorities.