The Seattle Emergency Operations Center

The Seattle area and I just went through a four day snow/ice storm event.  The City of Seattle’s emergency operations center (EOC) was activated and coordinated the City government’s response.  That response received high marks from the public and media for a variety of reasons (see Seattle Times editorial here), including the leadership of Mayor Michael McGinn.

I was able to personally observe that response and lead the technology support of it.   Information technology materially contributed to the improved response, nevertheless I see a number of further potential enhancements using technology.  And that’s the purpose of this blog entry.


Every city, county and state is all about geography and maps.  Maps are the way we deploy resources (think “snowplows”).  Maps are the way we understand what’s happening in our jurisdiction.  Everyone who has lived and traveled inside a city can look on a map and instantly visualize locations – what the “West Seattle bridge” or any other street, infrastructure or geographical feature (think “hill”) looks like.

For this storm, we have some great mapping tools in place, especially a map which showed which streets had been recently plowed and de-iced.   This map used GPS technology attached to the snowplow trucks. That same map had links to over 162 real-time traffic cameras so people could see the street conditions and traffic.  (Other cities, like Chicago, have similar maps.)

Another useful map is the electrical utility’s system status map, which shows the exact locations of electrical system outages, the number of outages, the number of customers affected and the estimated restoration times.  This is really useful if you are a customer who is affected – at least you know we’ve received your problem and a crew will be on the way.

What could we do better?  We could put GPS on every City government vehicle and with every City crew and display all that information on a map.   That way we’d immediately know the location of all our resources.  If there was a significant problem – let’s say a downed tree blocking a road or trapping people – we could immediately dispatch the closest resources.  In that case we’d typically dispatch a transportation department tree-clearing crew.  But that crew might have to travel across the City when a parks department crew with the proper equipment might be a block away.

This same sort of map could show a variety of other information – the location of police and fire units, which streets are closed due to steep hills and ice, where flooding is occurring, blocked storm drains, as well as water system and electrical outages.   This “common operating picture”, across departments, would be enormously useful – as just one example, the fire department needs water to fight fires, and it needs good routes to get its apparatus to the fire and perhaps it would need a snowplow to clear a street as well.

Obviously we wouldn’t want to show all of this information to the public – criminals would have a field day if they knew the location of police units!  But a filtered view certainly could be presented to show the City government in action.

Perceptions and Citizen Contact

A lot of media descended on Seattle this week.  Partly that was due to the uniqueness of the storm – it doesn’t snow much in this City.  And perhaps it was a slow news week in the world.  A lot of news crews filmed inside the EOC.  The Mayor and other key department spokespeople were readily available with information.

This is quite important – the television, radio and print/blog media are really important in advising the public on actions they should take (“public transit to commute today, don’t drive”) and actions they should avoid (“don’t use a charcoal grill to cook when you are without power”).  Our joint information center (JIC) was a great success.

Mayor McGinn’s family even contributed to this – his 11 year old son filmed him in a public service announcement about how to clear a storm drain of snow and ice which is now posted on the Seattle Channel.

What could we do better?   We need better video conferencing technology, so the Mayor and senior leaders can be reached quickly by news media without sending a crew to the EOC.  This video conferencing would also be quite useful in coordinating action plans between departments with leaders in different locations.

In a larger, regional, disaster, such capability would allow the governor, mayors and county executives to rapidly and easily talk to each other to coordinate their work.  It is much easier for anyone to communicate if they can see the visual cues of others on the call.

Also, Seattle, like many cities, is a place of many languages and nationalities.   We need to have translators available to get communications out in the languages our residents speak.  This might include a volunteer-staffed translation team but at least could include recording and rapidly distributing written, video and audio/radio public service announcements in multiple languages.

Commuting; Telecommuting

In these emergencies, many people elect to use public transit – buses and trains for commuting.  (I actually took my “boat” – the water taxi – to work twice this week.)  Yet snowstorms are also the times when buses jackknife or get stuck in snowdrifts and going up hills.

In this emergency, the coordination between the transit agency (“Metro”) and the City was quite improved, because we had people – liaisons – from each agency embedded with the other.   This allowed snowplows to help keep bus routes clear and help clear streets near trapped buses.

And, with recent technology advances and sorta-broadband networks, many workers can now telecommute.  Seattle had few outages of Internet service this week, although in suburban areas trees and snow brought down not just power lines, but telephone and cable lines as well causing more widespread Internet issues.

What could we do better?  The easiest and most useful advance, I think, would be GPS on every bus and train and water taxi boat.   That, combined with real-time mapping, would allow people to see the location of their rides right on their smartphones.  If we deployed it right, such technology might also show how full the bus is and the locations of stuck buses.  This sort of technology would be useful every day for public transit users – but is especially important during snow emergencies.

Another huge necessity – which I’ve advocated often and loudly – is very high speed fiber broadband networks.   With fiber broadband – and Gigabit (a billion bits per second), two way, telecommuting and tele-education becomes really possible.  Kids could continue their school day with video classes even when schools are closed, you could visit your doctor, and of course citizens would have access to all that emergency information and maps described above, real time and two-way.  I could go on and on about this – and I have – read it here.

Crowdsourcing and Two-Way Communications, Cell Phones

This area is the most ripe for improved technology to “weather the storm”.

In any emergency – even a minor disaster like a major fire or a pile-up collision – just obtaining and distributing information early and often will have a significant result in managing the problem.

On-duty at any time, the City of Seattle may have 200 firefighters, 350 police officers and several hundred to several thousand other employees.   Yet we also have 600,000 people in the City, each one of which is a possible source  of information.

How could we get many of them, for example, to tell us the snow and ice conditions in their neighborhoods?   Or perhaps to tell us of problems such as clogged storm drains or stuck vehicles?  The Seattle Times actually did this a bit, crowdsourcing snow depths from Facebook.

How can we “crowd source” such information?  I’m not exactly sure.  Perhaps we could use Facebook apps or Twitter (although not a lot of people use Twitter).  Two-way text messages are possible.

Any one of these solutions would present a whole mass of data which needs to be processed, tagged for reliability, and then presented as useful analytics.    Eventually, of course, there will be whole armies of remote sensors (“the Internet of things”) to collect and report the information.  Perhaps everyone’s cell phone might eventually be a data collector (yes, yes, I’m well aware of privacy concerns).

In the meantime, we should have some way citizens can sign up for alerts about weather or other problems.

Many such systems exist, such as the GovDelivery-powered one used by King County Transportation.  I’m not aware of such a system being used two-way, to crowd-source information from citizens.

There are also plenty of community-notification or “Reverse 911” systems on the market.  The Federal government is developing CMAS, which would automatically alert every cell phone / mobile device in a certain geographical area about an impending problem or disaster.

Furthermore, during this Seattle snowstorm, many City of Seattle employees – including police and fire chiefs and department heads, used text messages on commercial cellular networks to communicate with their staff and field units.   This continues a tradition of use of text messaging during emergency operations which first came to prominence during Hurricane Katrina.

All of these solutions depend, of course, on reliable cellular networks.  We know during disasters commercial cellular networks can easily be overloaded (example:  2011 Hurricane Irene), calls dropped and cell sites can drop out of service as power outages occur and backup batteries at the sites run out of juice.

Yet, for people without power or land-line Internet, a smartphone with internet is a potential lifesaver and at least a link to the outside world.  I’d like a way to easily collect this information – privately – from the carriers so emergency managers would know the geographies where mobile networks are impacted.

This leads me, of course, to my final point – that we need a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network.  Such a network would be built using spectrum the Congress and the FCC have set aside for this purpose.  It would only be used by public safety, although – as our Seattle snowstorm underscored, “public safety” must be used broadly to include utilities, transportation and public works – even building departments.  And it would be high speed and resilient, with 4G wireless technology and backup generators, hardened cell sites.

These are a few of my thoughts on better management, through technology, of future snowstorms and other disasters, large and small, both daily and once-in-a-lifetime ones.   What have I missed?

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  • Guest

    Congratulations to Seattle on weathering this snowstorm! The communication on social and mass media was excellent. Service outages are inevitable, but keeping residents informed is the next-best thing to salting all our roads.

  • Forrest

    Maybe I missed it, but in all the talk about crowd sourcing our using more community involvement, I’m surprised there was no mention of the SNAP program.

  • Sjames

    You did not incude much about medical networks but @seattlecca @uwmedicine @grouphealth @swedish did great work about clinics open and shut and shuttles and general info.

  • TR @ WSB

    Cool writeup. Will point to it in our preview of the city’s storm-response review coming up this week. We have the unique perspective of comparing the 1/12 storm to the 12/08 storm as a news publisher striving to use as much online info as possible, and definitely agree things have improved, though (and we’ve said this to Mr. Schrier, we’re not just bitching publicly!) we’d like to see more of the tools made embeddable, like the “who’s plowed” map (3 years ago, no such thing existed, and we even had a reader make an ad-hoc Google map based on commenters’ reports of road conditions!) and the live video feeds. I personally would also like to see webcams on many more city signal installations, poles, etc., so that you could check the road conditions almost anywhere without having to get a reader to send a photo. Another thumbs-up improvement BTW – the city department “blogs” as info-distribution means that are more friendly than “news releases,” even though the verbiage is largely the same. 

  • Will Green

    For what it’s worth, Metro is upgrading all their busses with GPS and fully digital radios as part of their “OBS” project, which will be done this year. Most busses on the East Side already have the upgrade, with busses at Ryerson Base currently getting worked on.
    This is a major upgrade for Metro – not only because it enables advanced service and fleet management tools – but also because it significantly improves communication between the Metro Control Center, Drivers, and the Public.

  • Mark Whitney

    Very nice implementation with one (major) weak link, no USNG (National Grid at the user interface (a very easy enhancement to make at no real additional cost – all GPS set to the same thing) 
    Find your USNG coordinates:

    If you want to borrow from the technologies used in Katrina, you should also look at the lessons obseved and take a bit to understand what true unified command and coordination will look like if we want everyone operating on the same page…a universal language for location. (New Kind of Map Could Help Emergency Response : NPR

    Holding an oversized grid map of New Orleans, Capt. Bob Norton of the NOPD Criminal Intelligence Bureau plotted various points and discussed the difficulty in getting rescuers organized before Katrina. Despite the heroic work of individual rescue teams, the lack of coordination caused duplication of efforts, wasting time and costing lives, he said. Moreover, different agencies used different maps, making communication that much harder. The NOPD used its own zone map. The Fire Department used a map with different zones, and Wildlife and Fisheries used a state map. “There was no unification,” he said. “Those were hard lessons learned.” (Trymaine Lee, Times-Picayune News).

    Florida (, Minnesota (, Wisconsin, Maryland (MD state patrol for 30 years has used MGRS for SAR missions), Missouri, North Carolina…have to one extent or another adopted USNG and others are on track to do so. However, the first responder community is mostly continuing it’s “local system” approach (even though FEMA supports USNG and that’s what the military will use) where “interoperability of spatial-based plans, information systems, equipment, and procedures will likely be rendered impossible beyond the local community.” (Third U.S. Fire Service Needs Assessment, NFPA)

    When folks are trapped under homes collapsed from a catastrophic earthquake, the National USAR Teams WILL be using USNG. Will local Seattle area authorities be able to communicate as effectively as possible when minutes count? We will see.

    PS: In addition to it’s own campus geoaddress at the bottom of all their web pages, the US Fire Administration has several online resources: U.S. National Grid (USNG) Demonstration Map of the NETC (, 327 Kb) | Intro to Standards-Based Geospatial Information Technologies (GIT) and the USNG (, 675 Kb)But again, a very nice geospatial implementation! The GIT folks have done a great job!!
    In addition to it’s own campus geoaddress at the bottom of all their web pages, the US Fire Administration has several online resources: U.S. National Grid (USNG) Demonstration Map of the NETC (, 327 Kb) | Intro to Standards-Based Geospatial Information Technologies (GIT) and the USNG (, 675 Kb)

    But again, a very nice geospatial implementation! The GIT folks have done a great job!!

  • Ralphallenk

    Excellent blog.  This should be given to the legislature to promote the practicality of geography training/education at all levels of education.  It is particulary of importance in these trying times of public budgets and cost cutting for the wrong reasons.

  • anonyomous

    As a Metro rider the topic that hits closest to home for me is bus scheduling.  Trying to use Tracker during this time was hit or miss.  I would often get messages about the server being unavailable.  I can understand why but when the buses are running on snow routes and off-schedule, that’s the most important time to have this information available.  When the weather is good and the buses are on schedule you don’t need up-to-the-minute information because they are predictable.  When the snow hits and the bus schedule is unpredictable you need tools to know where your bus is.  Otherwise you wait wait wait without really knowing when the bus is going to be there.

  • Mike Dolbow

    “Obviously we wouldn’t want to show all of this information to the public
    – criminals would have a field day if they knew the location of police
    units!  But a filtered view certainly could be presented to show the
    City government in action.” – AGREED. Too often folks in public safety or government simply look at the first point and refuse to show ANYTHING on a map. When the more effective, nuanced approach – the second point of a “filtered view” is obviously the way to go. You communicate with the citizens without sacrificing sensitive information. Great post.

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