How to buy emergency response software

By Tim Dees

Emergency management (EM) software is a tool for keeping track of all of the events, equipment, and people associated with any complex public safety activity, particularly those that are unplanned. Since FEMA required all public safety organizations to learn and use the Incident Command System (ICS), there are accountability standards that can be overwhelming unless someone is keeping careful logs of everything that happens. Emergency response software handles this task, and more.

ICS mandates many standards, but every incident and operational area has its own unique characteristics. Some agencies will arrive with wireless mobile data systems deployed through their fleet, and others will be using clipboards and legal pads. Whatever combination of systems you have, the EM software should accommodate them. The software is supposed to help you use and track the resources you have, not force you to reconfigure to suit it.

Multiple managers
There can be only one incident commander, but there will be any number of commanders or managers of units reporting to the incident commander. Each one of these should be able to communicate directly with the EM software, input data, and view the overall picture. This frequently means having interfaces for various computer-aided dispatch and records management systems, and compatibility with all sorts of common data formats, such as Word, Excel, PDF and Rich Text Format (RTF) documents, various types of graphics and photos, and movie files ranging from Flash to MPEGs. Whatever data each component unit produces or brings to the incident, they should be able to share it with everyone else through the EM software.

Timers and alerts
It's very easy to lose track of the endurance limits of individuals, teams, or equipment. How long has a team of searchers been exposed to hazardous materials at the site of a building collapse? How much time before the overhead aircraft has to return to base for fuel? When did we last hear from the deputy sheriff manning the access road checkpoint at the incident perimeter? EM software should track all of these events and remind the appropriate people when it's time to recall someone or check their welfare.

When the fun is over, there are debriefings and after-action reports to complete. A good EM package will have some of these done for you, and will have the fill-in-the-blanks portions of the others all done when you're ready for them. Every event, every milestone, every person and piece of equipment should have its role and actions detailed in the log.

Each episode requiring emergency management should be, in the current vernacular, a "learning opportunity" on how to do it better next time. A good EM software package provides all of the data to handle the current event, and every one thereafter.

Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of two major law enforcement websites who writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice. He can be reached at

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