What are the highest priority technology needs in the emergency management community to which Precision Information Environments must respond? To capture these requirements and develop a PIE research agenda that responds directly to stakeholder challenges, we’ve performed a domain-based gap analysis that enumerates the pressing technology gaps today. [Updated]

This report describes a gap analysis of the Emergency Response and Management Community (EM).  Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) undertook this effort to identify potential improvements to the functional domains in EM that could be provided by the application of current or future technology. To perform this domain-based gap analysis, PNNL personnel interviewed subject matter experts (SMEs) across the EM domain; to make certain that the analyses reflected a representative view of the community, the SMEs were from a variety of geographic areas and from various sized communities (urban, suburban, and rural). PNNL personnel also examined recent and relevant after-action reports and U.S. Government Accountability Office reports.

This report is not intended to be an exhaustive list of gaps in EM but rather a framework for organizing and analyzing representative gaps uncovered by this effort. The purpose of this report is to present existing EM needs that will inform the development of appropriate technologies to meet these needs in the future. A thorough understanding of these gaps will allow for a more informed approach to applying technology and prioritizing research and development to allow the EM community to improve performance.

Executive Summary

The EM community consists of many organizations (local, state, federal, and private). Examples of organizations with EM responsibilities include: the Federal Emergency Management Agency, emergency operations centers, emergency medical services, public health agencies, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. National Guard, law enforcement, public works, search and rescue, the American Red Cross, and the U.S. Department of Transportation. This report discusses some of the key challenges faced by the emergency management community. These challenges are based on needs identified by EM practitioners in interviews conducted by PNNL’s Precision Information Environment research team. The format of the interviews was semi-structured, allowing the SMEs to discuss areas of EM that they felt needed the most improvement. Notes from these interviews were compiled and organized into topical areas. Through this effort, PNNL personnel organized the gaps into six categories: Information Collection, Sharing, and Dissemination; Communications; Information Security; Analysis and Decision Support; Situation Awareness; and Knowledge Transfer.


For EM personnel to make accurate and timely decisions, they must have an accurate perception of the situation (situation awareness). The ability to have access to the right information about the situation is essential to this cognitive state. Effective information collection and sharing has been a historic challenge in many arenas, and the problem was highlighted during the interviews. The fast pace and critical nature of EM require the ability to access and share information efficiently and effectively; however, a number of competing factors often make this a challenge. PNNL researchers broke this gap down into two sub-gaps: Data Access and Organizational Information Sharing.

EM personnel often have difficulties obtaining the information they need. This is due to several fundamental problems: lack of awareness that the information exists; not knowing who controls the information; and the inability to access the information or having access but in a format that is not understandable. Personnel also frequently find that information is not shared across organizations. To address sharing concerns, an appropriate level of trust in the information recipient is required by the information owner.


Emergency communications are essential within and across EM agencies and jurisdictions throughout the lifecycle of an incident. EM communications systems during a catastrophic disaster must operate sufficiently to meet internal and external emergency communication requirements. Research suggests that gaps associated with communications may have organizational, technological, and sociological components (Manoj and Baker 2007). Organizational challenges prevalent in EM deal with a transition from day-to-day centralized decision making to a more dynamic ad hoc organization that emerges with post-disaster relief efforts. The main technological post-disaster challenge is rapid deployment of communication systems for the EM community. Sociological-based communications challenges can arise from public fear, stress, and other emotions aggravated by the lack of information.

PNNL has organized communications gaps identified by SMEs into three categories: verbal communication; communications infrastructure; and communication with the public. The characteristics of verbal communications (e.g., ease of use, perishability, challenge to capture and structure, etc.) make it a natural means for communicating information and a challenge to be as effective as other mechanisms. Communications infrastructure can be impacted in an emergency by too many people vying for the same communication resources (radio channels, cell bandwidth, etc.) and loss of resources due to damage to a portion of the communication infrastructure. Communication with the public was identified by SMEs as an area that could be improved to enhance situation awareness and decision making and to disseminate reliable information to the public, allowing them to better respond to an event.


Maintaining the appropriate level of security for sensitive information is an important component of emergency management as it allows EM personnel to respond to emergencies without inappropriate use of information by unauthorized parties. Information security, as defined here, can be broadly broken down into two topic spaces: threat-based security and handling-based security. Threat-based security concerns include threats such as cyber attacks (from nondiscriminating malware to targeted attacks). Handling-based security deals with information shared by agencies that will not be handled appropriately, leading to information loss, information confusion, or the dissemination of inaccurate information. Information security measures designed to mitigate threats also make it difficult for those with legitimate operational needs to access information. Varied security protocols at different agencies further complicate the issues of information security and legitimate access to information.


Analysis and decision support are essential to management of the complex environment of an emergency. Analysis involves evaluating information that has been collected and drawing conclusions about the information to enhance decision making. Gaps associated with analysis and decision support were broken into the following categories: information relevance; role ambiguity; decision making with limited information, expertise, resources, and time; and coordinated decision making. Information relevance deals with situations in which the value of information may be lost or unrecognized. Role ambiguity exists when individuals or organizations are uncertain of their job duties and level of authority; this leads to increased individual stress and a variety of inefficiencies that negatively impact EM effectiveness. Given the possibility of communications being compromised, unavailability of staff members, and agencies handling their own concerns before communicating with other agencies, decision makers must be able to make the best decisions possible with the information that is available. SMEs stated that they currently lack trusted predictive models and tools that could assist in situations where decision makers are constrained by information, expertise, resources, and/or time. Gaps associated with coordinated decision making relate to difficulties with effective communication within and outside of an organization or group. Coordinated decision making gaps include the inability to effectively communicate to policy makers and not receiving information from organizations that affect communities in one’s jurisdiction.


Situation awareness is a cognitive state that reflects the real-time understanding of an environment and its relation to pertinent goals. Situation awareness has been shown to be significantly related to performance for those who have the technical and operational capabilities to take advantage of it (Endsley 1995). PNNL researchers divided gaps related to situation awareness into three categories: dynamic situations; resource status; and geographic visualization. Dynamic situations often create increasingly complex environments, making it difficult to maintain good situation awareness. SMEs expressed a need to have better situation awareness of resource status (location and well-being of personnel as well as status of personnel activities) to more effectively manage the situation. Geographic visualization of the situation is hampered by several factors, including expertise required to operate systems, access to geolocated data, and the time required to generate a visualization of the situation.


In the EM community, effective knowledge transfer is critical for operations, multiple handoffs, and shift changes during the course of an event. Knowledge transfer is the communication of knowledge between individuals and organizations across a range of domains and time scales (e.g., from shift changes to organizational best practices). PNNL researchers divided knowledge transfer gaps into three categories: shift changes; organizational memory; and training. During shift changes, situation awareness can be degraded or lost due to lack of detailed knowledge transfer. Gaps exist in organizational memory as experienced staff members leave and new staff members join the organization; they also exist in the documentation and understanding of organizational lessons learned and best practices. Training gaps relate to shortcomings in two broad and overlapping categories: training for technical skills and for cognitive skills.

The gaps identified in this report highlight some of the key issues and challenges facing the EM community. By identifying the overarching gaps associated with information collection, sharing, and dissemination; communications; information security; analysis and decision support; situation awareness; and knowledge transfer, PNNL has provided a framework to better understand where technology can contribute to improved EM operations.


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