Common Operating Picture: how we work together in Victoria

The objective of all emergency management activities in Victoria is to reduce the impact of emergencies on human life, communities, essential and community infrastructure and the environment.

Timely, tailored and relevant emergency information for communities, individuals and families is integral in enabling them to make effective decisions before, during and after emergencies.

Though a number of disasters in Victoria — notably the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires and the 2010 – 2011 floods —highlighted the key role of information in effective emergency management, an overarching strategy articulating how this would be achieved across the emergency management sector was missing.

In early 2013, the Information Interoperability Blueprint (External link) was released under the then-Fire Services Commissioner. Built as the strategy for the future provision of information and warnings, for all emergencies in Victoria, the Blueprint set the direction and enabled Victoria’s emergency services to work better together, with the community, government, not for profit and private organisations.

With the community the centre focus, the Blueprint articulated the approach to delivering information to communities before, during and after emergencies and for communities themselves to contribute information to improve situational awareness for all.

It proposed a platform for realising a common operating picture and enabling effective decision making for emergency management in Victoria. The platform, the Victorian Information Network for Emergencies (VINE), enabled the sharing of information pertinent to an emergency and the creation of tools for combining, processing and analysing this information in order to provide decision makers with added insight.

The architecture had to take full advantage of modern day and developing technology; the ability to add modules and evolve with technological advances; to be cloud based with fully scalable infrastructure. Most importantly, for it to be open source and not locked in to any one vendor, for it to serve an infinite number of users and for it to encourage global innovation.

But where did this exist in the world?

A global scan identified a key project at Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory (MIT LL) with the potential to provide the base foundations for the VINE platform.  This project was called the Next-Generation Incident Command System (NICS), initiated by MIT LL in conjunction with a small but highly skilled group of operation emergency management personnel in Southern California.

MIT Lincoln Laboratory’s traditional work was in the command and control areas in the military sphere.  Lincoln Laboratory wanted to apply its vast military expertise to emergency management in the civilian arena. In 2013, then-Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley saw it in action in Southern California during major fires and was able to appreciate the significance the new platform and approach could have to emergency management in Victoria.

Victoria flagged with MIT LL the possibility of being the first party to take this NICS Platform from a research environment, harden it for production use, implement in a cloud environment where it could automatically scale up for emergencies, and modify it to support the Victorian all hazards-all agencies ‘working-as-one’ approach to emergency management.

MIT Lincoln Laboratory worked with its key sponsor for this project (the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate) to enable a license to the State of Victoria to achieve these outcomes.

In March 2014, the signing of a license between Victoria and MIT sparked an intensive program of work in Victoria, including designing the requirements for the State, partnering with key cloud service providers to host, and with agile developers to work up the system for everyday use.

The partners involved in this work included multinational organisations such as Fujitsu and also local Victorian companies including base2-Services, Remasys, DiUS and Dialog Information Technology. Amazon Web Services (AWS) was also a key partner in delivering technical expertise and hosting.

In Victoria, the NICS platform became a component of a larger project called the Emergency Management Common Operating Picture Project or EM-COP. This has been trialled with input from more than 400 representatives of Victorian emergency management agencies at state and regional level.

EM-COP runs on any device with a modern browser including desktop computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones and is designed to provide users with a simple way to gather, organise, create, and share emergency management information between emergency managers at no cost to agencies.      When fully realised, it means that no matter where they are – any control centre, shire council, not-for-profit relief organisation, essential service provider or on the ground – members will be able to understand and add to current situational awareness more quickly and more effectively than ever before.

As the EM-COP pilot progressed, MIT Lincoln Laboratory became increasingly impressed with the innovative enhancements to the original software.   In late 2014, MIT and DHS began discussions about the next steps from a global basis and how to incorporate the developments in Victoria, for the benefit of all.

The original license signed in March 2014 enabled Victoria to use the platform in Victoria for ‘government purposes only’, but DHS and MIT, understanding the progress made in Victoria, have decided to release the NICS platform globally under an ‘Open Source’ license.

The 2015 extension to the license allows what was built in Victoria to be used anywhere in Australia.   Additionally, MIT Lincoln Laboratories and DHS plan to incorporate many of the Victorian enhancements into the NICS platform and release this new version under an Open Source license later this year, making it available to the emergency management community around the world.

Effective decision making is enabled by two factors: comprehensive and up to date information; and the tools to turn that information into insights that can assist with making the right decision.

This is at the heart of EM-COP, and of the Victorian intent. EMCOP, and the extension of the license, allows the potential for true and broad two-way information provision as an enabler to working together better throughout the emergency management sector.

This is part of the journey for the Victorian emergency management sector.    Breaking down silos, enabling collaboration, embracing innovation and partnerships with everyone touched by or involved in an emergency.

True success will be when the community, Victorian industry and business can get the information they need to improve their decision making and truly become a partner in emergency management. This is the future of shared responsibility.

Hear from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory and the US Department of Homeland Security representatives about next generation information systems