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First responseLessons learned in U.S.-Canada cross-border experiment

Published 26 October 2016

DHS S&T First Responders Group (FRG) and Canadian partners held the CAUSE IV experiment on the Michigan-Ontario border. The two territories are connected by the Blue Water Bridge spanning the St. Clair River, which is the second-busiest transit point between the United States and Canada. The goal of the CAUSE experiment series is to stage emergency scenarios to prepare first responders and communities on both sides of the U.S./Canada border for a potential natural or manmade disaster.

In April 2016, the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate First Responders Group (FRG) and its Canadian partners from Defense Research and Development Canada’s Center for Security Science (DRDC CSS) and Public Safety Canada held the CAUSE IV experiment on the Michigan-Ontario border. The two territories are connected by the Blue Water Bridge spanning the St. Clair River, which is the second-busiest transit point between the United States and Canada.

S&T says that the goal of the CAUSE experiment series is to stage emergency scenarios to prepare first responders and communities on both sides of the U.S./Canada border for a potential natural or manmade disaster. The CAUSE IV experiment was carried out in two distinct, yet related, segments, or vignettes. The first vignette tested voice and data communications during cross-border patient transfers. The second vignette studied the impact of public alerts, warnings, and digital volunteers with social media and crowd-sourcing information during an emergency.

These two vignettes were evaluated by practitioners and experts from both sides of the border and from a wide range of disciplines, including border patrol, disaster management, and paramedic services, as well as hospitals, digital volunteers, and community organizations such as Ontario 211. Gathering feedback from professional first responders was critical in determining future cross-border policies and planning for CAUSE V and beyond.

S&T says that the CAUSE IV Binational After Action Report along with videos for each of the two vignettes consolidates that critical information. The report represents a collaborative effort and includes findings and feedback from all of the experiment’s participants. It highlights both the strengths and areas of improvement for each vignette of the CAUSE IV experiment.

The first vignette tested a 700MHz Public Safety Broadband Network (PSBN) with ambulances shuttling back and forth across the Blue Water Bridge. This scenario sought to maintain constant communication between the ambulances, hospitals, dispatch centers, and border officials. The interoperable technologies tested to support the exchange of voice and data communication during cross-border patient transfers resulted in improved situational awareness between the personnel who were part of the fictional emergency incident.

Though the technology was used to track patient status during the transfer, observers during the experiment noted it did not readily support a continuous exchange of feedback, however, it was noted there was an overall increase in the exchange of information. Dispatchers and paramedics from both sides observed that the PSBN was largely used for situational awareness within each organization. The vehicle tracking technology facilitated faster travel times for the ambulances and allowed for updated patient care when needed. Changes in bridge or road conditions were also easily communicated to the paramedics and all participating organizations.

The vignette also identified a need for local pre-identified agreements to support improved cross-border patient transfers and provide guidance for future cross-border patient exchanges during emergencies. Currently, once an ambulance crosses the border, there is limited communications between healthcare partners for sharing information.

During the second vignette, a fictional tornado scenario was used to test alerts and warnings. Across the board, it was clear participants were comfortable using digital volunteers and social media to gather data and make emergency management decisions in real time. As with the first vignette, the effort to establish predefined processes, in this case for crowdsourcing and social media data mining, is still in the infancy stage. The absence of plans, guidelines, and a decision-chain hierarchy for interoperable technology is essential for furthering the development of social media emergency management.

This part of the experiment, which was carried out in Michigan, identified the potential for 211 organizations to deploy digital volunteers as a component to enhance the capabilities of traditional emergency management structures. Monitoring, synthesizing, and understanding information gained from the public, while mitigating the potential for rumors, allowed citizens in the midst of an emergency situation to remain connected and informed.

S&T notes that it is essential that exercises and training on social media and digital volunteers take place regularly; otherwise the systems and recommendations identified in CAUSE IV could become weakened over time. Vetting, verifying, and confirming social media data will also need to establish procedures.

— Read more in the Canada –U.S. Enhanced Resiliency Experiment (CAUSE IV) Binational After Action Report (DHS S&T, June 2016); and watch the CAUSE IV videos.