Edited Version June 24, 1998 Transcript

EIIP Tech Arena Online Presentation

Response Information Management System (RIMS)

Troy Armstrong
RIMS Program Manager,
Governor's Office of Emergency Services in California

EIIP Tech Arena Moderator: Amy Sebring

The original transcript of June 24, 1998 online Tech Arena discussion is available in EIIP Virtual Forum Archives (http://www.emforum.org). The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. Typos were corrected, date/time/names attributed by the software to each input were deleted but the content of questions and responses are as stated by each participant. Answers from the participants to questions by the audience are grouped beneath the appropriate question to facilitate meaning.


Amy Sebring: On behalf of the EIIP, I am pleased to welcome you to a special event in our Tech Arena. Please hold all questions and comments until we get to the Q&A portion of the program about half past the hour. We will review the instructions at that time.


Amy Sebring: And now, it is my pleasure to introduce Troy Armstrong, RIMS Program Manager, Governor's Office of Emergency Services in California. California has been pioneering in terms of networking for emergency management, with their Response Information Management System (RIMS). Welcome Troy and thanks for being here today.


Troy Armstrong: Thanks for having me. I will start with a little prepared text and then open it up to questions.

The Response Information Management System (RIMS) is a set of applications designed by the Governor's Office of Emergency Services (OES) in Lotus Notes to assist in the management of disasters in California.

The goal of the RIMS project is to connect, via computers, the five levels of government (Field, Local, Operational Area, Regional and State) outlined in California's Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS). RIMS has been operational since June 1995 and is in use by all 58 Operational Areas (counties) and 30 state and federal agencies.

OES is now fielding RIMS down to California's Cities and is developing applications that can be used by emergency responders in the field. While RIMS has a wide variety of capabilities it was designed around two fundamental activities common to all emergency response actions.

1. Submission, Exchange and Analysis of Disaster Related Information: RIMS has a set of reports available to all levels of government that break down various categories of disaster related information in a manner that quickly provides an overview of an event or multiple events.

The structure of RIMS then allows users to zero in on specific details relevant to their particular role in the response effort. Because RIMS allows multiple users to submit and receive information on demand, it has dramatically improved the dissemination of disaster related information statewide.

2. Request, Task and Track Assistance: RIMS has established an electronic link between agencies requesting assistance and agencies that can provide the needed resources. It allows Operational Areas to submit requests for emergency response assistance by computer to one of OES' three Regional Emergency Operations Centers (REOC).

These REOCs then review the request and task the appropriate state agency to provide the requested assistance. The tasked state agency then updates the report periodically so that both OES and the requesting OA are constantly advised on the status of the resources being sent.

The database is currently being modified so that it can be used by City and Field level response organizations. To accomplish these functionality's, RIMS takes advantage of Lotus Notes' workflow/groupware architecture. It is through the use of Notes as the underlying software that allows RIMS to move and share information between large numbers of people/organizations that are located in a different places.

A RIMS user creates a document that is then available to others who have a need to be informed of, or take action on, the subject of that document. Instead of setting up a standard "send/receive" system, OES designed RIMS so that no matter what level of government, or what position they hold, response staff can gain access to the information they feel relevant to their duties.

RIMS accomplishes this by categorizing information along the SEMS organizational structure. This reduces the problem of information overload and ensures that emergency response staff can quickly identify information that is most relevant to their role in response operations.

The hardware backbone of RIMS is a network of 13 file servers in various locations across the state that can be accessed directly from OES' wide area network or remotely via commercial phone line, cellular phone, the Internet or Satellite. OES is currently developing the capability to connect to RIMS using packet radio.

At this point I was going to start directing the group to my slides but Amy and I had trouble getting them hooked up. So I will just describe where we are going with RIMS and how it has performed.

During the past couple of major disasters here in Ca, the system worked pretty much as we expected. However, we did experience some problems that we are now addressing. The first, and most critical is connectivity. We had a lot of problems with ISPs and phone lines.

During the floods last February, several single points of failure in the statewide phone network failed. This cut off several counties from both long distance and the Internet. We were able to switch some over to satellite but it took too long for our satisfaction. We are now working to make the switch over smoother and more automatic.

The second problem we had was with bandwidth. We never envisioned the amount of traffic that would be passed over the system at this point in the programs development. Thus, we had to do some redesign to keep attached GIS and Digital photo files from clogging up the bandwidth. We feel we have this issue resolved and tests are showing that we should not have this problem next disaster.

Another area of concern for us was training. We found we need to get a larger cadre of emergency managers trained on RIMS. There were always one or two EMs at each level of Government who could use RIMS but they were unable to stay on duty 24 hours a day. So we are making an effort to get more people trained.

Testing is another area where we are putting a lot of emphasis. We found that a lot of agencies had not tested their RIMS connections on a regular basis. So when they tried to fire the system up at the start of the emergency. They had a lot of minor problems such as not having a good connection to their ISPs or having out of date databases.

We have addressed that by having our regional staff conduct regularly scheduled tests. And also by having our IT staff regularly call our end users to make sure they aren't having any problems, this seems to resolved this problem. During the event itself, most of the problems were fixed quickly but we should not have found out about them during the event. Thus, we are putting a lot emphasis on testing.

We are also embarking on a lot of new applications for RIMS such as detailed resource tracking applications geared directly towards the needs of field, city and county users. RIMS was originally designed from a strategic point of view; OES communicating with the counties.

Now, we are experiencing a great deal of demand for the system to have the capability of EOCs to work with their departments within the city and counties, as well as responders in the field. To address this, we are working with LA City to develop a set of applications geared directly at their EOC interacting with their various departments and their Incident Command Posts (ICP) in the field.

The EOC to Department applications come online in the next couple of weeks and the field level applications come online the end of this year. Another area we are devoting effort to is the integration of GIS to RIMS. Like everything else we do in RIMS, we are building it incrementally. We have tied some of our reports to a program called GEO Finder. Soon all reports will be interactive with ARCVIEW.


Finally, we are building direct web page interfaces so that users will no longer have to have Lotus Notes to use RIMS. They will simply need Netscape or Explorer and access to the Internet. An example of this can be found on our FIRESCOPE test site at <http://firescope.oes.ca.gov/>. This application works both with our intranet and the Internet so that it doesn't matter whether you are using Notes or strictly a browser.

Our only concern with this is security. With Notes connections, we can put in several layers of security that are built into the software. With the web page interface we are limited to passwords and firewalls.

At this point, I would like to open it up to questions.

Audience Questions


Bill Lent: Question from Randy Duncan: Troy, how exactly did you solve the bandwith problem you mentioned earlier in the conversation?

Troy Armstrong: Mainly by keeping attachments to a minimum. People were attaching a lot of GIS files to their reports. We now have separate databases for the transfer of these files. This cuts down on the amount of data end users have to replicate.


Paul Harris: I would like know if you have industrial applications / users currently?

Troy Armstrong: The closest we have is utility companies.


Avagene Moore: You mentioned training needed: How extensive is the training? Is it done in the field or where?

Troy Armstrong: The training ranges from 5 hours to two days. In 5 hours we can get someone up to speed so they can do the basic reporting and requesting. In our two day course, they get a lot more instruction on how RIMS works within the Standardized Emergency Managment System (SEMS), framework in place in CA. We offer the two day course at our training institute, CSTI and the 5 hour course at our Regional Emergency Operations Centers (REOCs)


Amy Sebring: Approximately, how many system-wide users, Troy?

Troy Armstrong: We have all 58 counties, 30 state and federal agencies, and about 20 cities connected. We are now starting a program to get most of the cities hooked up over the next year. We hope to have over 200 cities and special districts connected by this time next year.


Amy Sebring: Will you have non-profits as well?

Troy Armstrong: Depends, we already have a couple of Red Cross offices hooked up

and will hook up others if they are interested and have a role in CA's emergency management framework.


Amy Sebring: Are you finding any uses during non-emergency times? That is assuming CA has any non-emergency times!

Troy Armstrong: Many, we use NOTES for all our day to day work, travel claims, budgeting, time sheets etc. Also, it helps with training and exercises.


Bill Lent: What are your support issues going to be when you reach all 200 cities in addition to your current users?

Troy Armstrong: The support issues are daunting to say the least. We are going to be putting on extra staff for help desk type operations. We have a very detailed, yet easy-to-follow, install and connection instructions that should make it easy for new end users to get connected.

Also, we are publishing a manual on our web page on how to use RIMS in the next month or so. Our big concern remains connectivity. We want everyone to use the Internet as their primary connectivity to RIMS. This makes everyone dependant on ISPs; that makes us a bit nervous.


Amy Sebring: Can you tell us just a little more how the GIS is/will be set up?

Troy Armstrong: Currently, we have our GIS interaction set up so that it works off the end users hard drive. They post their icons related to a map on their hard drive and then only replicate the geo code for the location of the icon. That gets around having to send the whole file and takes care of the bandwidth issue.

It also gives the end user the option to determine which icons they want to see. Thus, when California Transportation publishes its 200 or so road closures in RIMS, the end user only selects the closures they want to see on a map. They can also overlay it with it other icons such as locations of resources, locations of ICPs, staging areas etc. And of course, you can double click on the icon and it takes you to the associated report.


Amy Sebring: Tell us just a little about the field aspects coming later this year, Troy.

Troy Armstrong: We are working towards putting RIMS on palmtops that could be carried by firefighters, police, public works etc. This would allow them to come upon an incident, mark it on a GIS map, make a few comments and forward it to an EOC or Department Operations Center, whatever their reporting chain is. The big problem we are facing is wireless connectivity. There are a lot of promising products out there, but none seems to fit the bill, yet.


Ron Brittan: What about outside of California?

Troy Armstrong: Everything we develop, we give away. If other states want to use our system, they just have to ask. We haven't done anything revolutionary, we think it can work anywhere.

Final Question:

David Crews: How do you plan to share this info with the Federal entities? In February, the State gave the FEMA DFO very limited direct access to SEMS/RIMS.

Troy Armstrong: Actually, we gave them whatever they wanted. When I traveled to Southern California with James Lee Witt, his staff had given him reports they took straight off of RIMS. We have connections in FEMA region IX and are training their staff on the 29th. Also, DA DOMS, DOT and US Coast Guard are connected. We would like to get as many feds on as we can, it makes our lives easier.

David Crews: I agree but release of the info became a very sensitive issue.

Amy Sebring: We are just about out of time. Thank you very much Troy for sharing this with us today. We invite you and our guests to meet for a few minutes further back in the Virtual Forum.

Troy Armstrong: My pleasure, if anyone wants to continue this, I am available now.

Amy Sebring: Thanks. Now, if you can stick around, please select the Virtual Forum from your Room menu and join us over there. Thanks for coming.

After the close of the formal hour of discussion in the Tech Arena, the speaker and audience moved to the Virtual Forum for a few more questions and comments relative to Mr. Armstrong's topic.

Avagene Moore: Troy, you did an excellent job! Great information and of great interest. I have to leave now for an appointment. Thanks to all for being here. Remember the Round Table tomorrow night at 8 PM EDT.

Amy Sebring: Good job, Troy! <clap, clap> In here we are less formal. Jim had a question he didn't get to ask. We dispense with the ? marks and recognition.

Thanks Ava.

Annmarie: Very interesting presentation.

Troy Armstrong: Thank you, this is fun. So much easier than traveling and giving presentations.


Jim Cook: How do you calm people's fears of such a heavy reliance on ISPs? We have all seen that they can be VERY slow and completely down some of the time. Do you have any plans to work around the ISPs in the future?

Troy Armstrong: Also I'd like to address the access vs. release issue. ISPs are a problem but they are all we have right now.


Amy Sebring: Go ahead Troy. Any ideas re: ISPs? I thought you had this licked with satellite.

Troy Armstrong: We are asking funding to get the counties connected via T1 at the states expense but that money is a year away. That's why we are anxiously awaiting the LEO cell phones when they get the bandwidth, they will be the way to go.


Jim Cook: Have you looked at satellites? What have you found in that area?

Troy Armstrong: Satellites are expensive, again, the new satellites cell phones look promising.

Jim Cook: Thanks Troy - good job!


Neil Blais: Troy, is there a minimum size for a city to be considered for connection?

Troy Armstrong: No minimum size. They have to get their county to agree to the connection. One thing we want to guard against is cities thinking that they can go straight to OES through RIMS, this is not the case. They are only using RIMS to connect to their counties. OES just provides the method for that connection.


Ron Brittan: Troy, could you please repeat the Web site address?

Troy Armstrong: Yes, hold on a sec. <http://firescope.oes.ca.gov/> That is our FIRESCOPE web site. It will be used to report large scale fires etc. When it comes on line in the next couple of weeks; important note, all the reports on it are test and not real.


Annmarie: Troy, why did you choose Lotus Notes instead of some of the existing integrated packages, such as Infobook?

Troy Armstrong: We chose Notes because it did most of things we wanted. We could develop our own applications. It worked on multiple platforms, it was cheap and it had lots of security built in. One of things we wanted to avoid was having to pay a lot of development costs and being stuck with applications we didn't think were working. More than one application we developed just did not work out but we were able to modify them in-house until they got to a point where they were useful.


Annmarie: Have you had any difficulty in getting users to accept and use the technology?

Troy Armstrong: Some. But I think overall people were glad that we stood up and said this is what we were going to use. In the long run, it gave them a direction to go and relieved them of the pressure of developing or buying something for themselves. A lot of agencies have been burned when they entered the computerized EM field. The fact that we took the risks made a lot of people happy. If it failed, it would be our fault (and money) and not theirs.


Amy Sebring: How much do you think you have invested overall, Troy? Very roughly.

Troy Armstrong: Just under a million over the past 2 1/2 years. That's software, hardware and programmers.


Jim Cook: Is RIMS required in California or can a county use something else?

Troy Armstrong: They can use whatever they want. We will work with them to develop the links between RIMS and what they want to use. For example, LA County has a system called EMIS that Lockheed built for them. This summer we are working to make it seamless with RIMS.


Amy Sebring: Are some areas open to all users, and other areas restricted by level?

Troy Armstrong: We are implementing Access control lists that will determine what you can see and edit. This ACL follows the procedures outlined in SEMS.

Amy Sebring: Well, we have probably kept you long enough, Troy.

Troy Armstrong: Let me stress one other point before I go. RIMS is not a requirement from OES to counties and cities. It is a low cost method for agencies in the state to get connected to one another via computers, with OES bearing most of the cost.


Annmarie: During an actual event have you attempted to disseminate information to the public and the press through RIMS? If so, was it successful?

Troy Armstrong: We have not attempted to disseminate information to the public or media using RIMS. That is an area we are looking into. But the issues are procedural and not technological. We can easily post info straight from RIMS to the web but exactly when and what info should be published is still being discussed. There are a lot of other agencies who will have a say in that, so we are working on building consensus.

Amy Sebring: Thanks again Troy. We will have the transcript posted in about a week. Also note, there is a converted PowerPoint slide presentation posted with the background info, that is converted to html. It takes a while to load, but looks very nice.

Troy Armstrong: My pleasure. I am still available if anyone else has questions, either now or they can email me at <[email protected]>.

Amy Sebring: I will also put the FireScope link up there. I, myself, have to go get some lunch, but feel free to stay on if you wish. Bye all. And thanks for coming today.

Troy Armstrong: Bye Amy.

David Crews: Troy, I like the system and info. Hope to see improvements in the procedural area.

Troy Armstrong: I've got another few minutes to kill so if they are anymore questions. We are working the procedural issues, particularly with FEMA. I don't see anything that can't be worked out.

David Crews: Great!


Isabel McCurdy: Can you elaborate on "procedural issues", Troy?

Troy Armstong: Basically, it boils down to this -- Who can release what info and when-- In the early stages when a DFO gets established, the PIO staffs of OES and FEMA need to get together and discuss what info can be released and what can't.

I think a lot of the problems revolve around misunderstandings. Also, RIMS has a lot of unverified data on it. It can be very raw at times. It's been our experience that the first reports are usually wrong, or at least inaccurate. We would like to get a little more confirmation before we release it. But at the same time, we want the locals to report what they think to be true. We understand that the reports will become more accurate as the situation develops.

David Crews: The SITSTAT for info and plans interface also needs work besides the PIO area.

Troy Armstrong: I agree, we are working that issue. How do ESFs interact with our staffs etc.


Isabel McCurdy: What is SITSTAT?

Troy Armstrong: Situation Status.

David Crews: Situation Status. What the current conditions are in the disaster area.

Isabel McCurdy: Thank you.


Annmarie: Have you been able to document benefits, such as improved response time, that you have received from RIMS?

David Crews: The FEMA teams in the field found most of the information timely and helpful. Inaccuracies were part of the feedback that made the system work better.

Troy Armstrong: ESFs don't always line up cleanly with our SEMS structure, but it’s nothing that can't be worked out. I'm glad to hear that the FEMA teams liked it. I hope to get FEMA more involved with RIMS. It makes our coordination with them easier. I have an RFA application set up, so I will continue to work with them.

David Crews: It is the kind of stuff the field teams need to assist the State and Local governments. Also allows for key decision-making by the managers.

Troy Armstrong: It seems a natural fit. We want RIMS info to come from where the rubber meets the road. Thus, when fed and state people go to the field, it doesn't take them as long to come up to speed.

David Crews: Thanks for your presentation. Looking forward to working SEMS/RIMS again.


Troy Armstrong: Well, I have to get going soon, are there anymore questions I can answer?

Ron Brittan: Thanks Troy, Most informative.


Cindy Rice: Troy, sorry I missed the presentation but when you're using the Internet is the info you get integrated into a database within Lotus or is it separate so you can see when changes occur?

Troy Armstrong: It comes from a Notes database though our domino web server. Domino automatically updates the database and the web pages if either are modified. Well, thanks for having me everyone, I need to get going. If you have any other questions, please don't hesitate to email me.

Final Question:

Isabel McCurdy: Any other questions, folks?

David Crews: Bye. A great day to all!

Isabel McCurdy: Thanks again, Troy.

Annmarie: Thank you for an informative presentation.

Troy Armstrong: My pleasure, see you all later.