The Big Board

A public emergency is the ultimate example of multitasking. It can require crowd control, medical aid, evacuation and emergency response all at once under trying conditions.

Managers who direct emergency operations centers (EOCs) have few technological tools to help them with these complicated, critical tasks, but the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) hopes to change that.

“Next to communications, situational awareness is the single most important aspect of emergency response,” says Ken Galluppi, manager of RENCI’s emergency management research projects. “Technologies that provide situational awareness—the ability to ‘see’ a whole staging area and know where you’re people are, for example—can have a huge impact in saving lives and restoring safe conditions.”

RENCI Senior Research Data Software Developer Jeff Heard developed the “Big Board” as a prototype Web-based, visual tool to provide situational awareness for EOCs. The Big Board (a reference to the War Room display in the film Dr. Strangelove) starts with a high-resolution aerial map of a location, developed from photos and other data that every North Carolina county routinely updates.

With any Web-connected desktop of laptop computer, an emergency manager can access the Big Board and simply click to create a virtual conference room related to a specific map. The virtual conference room allows users to select locations on the map and type in relevant notes. The notes are augmented with existing data about hazards and resources, and often, with real-time field data such as photos or video.

Creating a virtual conference room
For example, if the city of Raleigh was preparing for a major outdoor concert, planners could create a conference room and annotate important locations. The first aid tent might be annotated with contact information for the paramedic teams on duty and on call, annotations relevant to security headquarters might contain important phone numbers, details about the numbers of officers on duty, links to information about private security firms hired, and more. Annotations at major intersections could include street views from web cameras to provide real-time information on traffic congestion.

By returning to the virtual conference room when the event starts, the event managers have a real-time tool that provides situational awareness and the ability to obtain in-depth information by viewing or reading the embedded notes. Workers in the field equipped with GPS and Web-enabled cell phones are able to add new annotations as the event unfolds and their locations are automatically tracked on the map.  Because the Big Board is Web based, these same workers can view it in the field from a laptop or cell phone.  Equipped with real-time images of traffic, the event managers can run traffic routing algorithms and display the resulting change in traffic patterns before actually rerouting traffic.

But what if something goes wrong at our hypothetical outdoor concert? What if a tanker truck crashes near the entry to the venue, causing a dangerous chemical leak and the need to evacuate a large and possibly unruly crowd?

“You can use the Big Board to plan in advance, but it becomes even more useful if something unexpected happens,” says Heard. “If you already have annotations with important contacts and other information, you have an advantage in an emergency. The goal is situational awareness, and because this system is a visual display with geographic reference points, a complex, dynamic situation become understandable.”

A RENCI server stores all the data from the Big Board’s annotations, allowing emergency managers to later re-enter a virtual conference room and evaluate an event and the response. So far, RENCI has tested the software with aerial maps from Wake and Orange counties and expects to soon have maps of Mecklenburg County and the I-85 corridor between Greensboro and Charlotte.

Galluppi and Ray Idaszak, RENCI’s director of visualization and collaborative environments, introduced the Big Board at a March 9 presentation during the North Carolina Emergency Management Association (NCEMA) meeting in Sunset Beach. The tool also will be used in a NCEMA practice exercise in late March.