On May 1, 2010, when al-Qaeda sympathizer Faisal Shahzad attempted to detonate an improvised explosive device hidden in a parked car in the middle of New York’s Times Square, first responders had to rely on their knowledge of evacuation guidelines that for decades have only been accessible via bulky, hardcopy binders.
Although Shahzad’s bomb failed to detonate, the lessons from the response to that potentially deadly attack were not lost on the Department of Homeland Security’s Science & Technology Directorate (S&T).
Technology experts at DHS set to work almost immediately on a new way for first responders to have instant access to all of the information they need to effectively assess a bomb threat situation and move innocent people out of harm’s way. And by January 2011, they had it: a mobile app for iPhones, iPads, Android devices and Windows laptops.
Known as the First Responder Support Tools (FiRST) app, the software quickly defines safe distances to cordon-off around a potential bomb location, calculates rough damage and injury contours, suggests appropriate roadblocks, determines when mandatory evacuation or shelter-in-place circumstances apply, and helps identify nearby areas of particular concern, such as schools and hospitals. The mobile application also provides the geospatial information regarding potential injury, glass, or structural damage impact area.
Christine Lee, the FiRST program manager in S&T’s First Responders Group, said DHS has completed user validation testing of the app with Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department.
“At the time, they had to have a hard copy of the local map, and hard copies of [index] cards that are issued by the Office of Bombing Prevention containing information about safety distances,” said Lee. “Then they had to manually draw on the map to try to calculate the areas that could be impacted. That took about 20 minutes.”
But once DHS S&T gave officers the mobile app version of the same process, they were able to conduct the same calculations in about 1 minute – critical time savings when dealing with a live bomb threat in a crowded public area.
The FiRST app uses services readily available with current smartphones: email, phone, Google Maps, Google Search, and weather and road network data.
DHS approached Albuquerque, NM-based Applied Research Associates Inc. (ARA) to help develop the app. ARA had already developed a hazardous materials response app that anybody can purchase, so Lee worked with them to build the bomb response portion of the app. And that portion of the app was combined with the hazardous materials app and made available only to government users who are vetted through ARA or DHS.
DHS bomb standoff data is considered sensitive and is automatically made available to those that register the application with a .gov, .mil, or .us email address. However, any user can input into the app and define his own custom bomb and standoff distances, which might be applicable to certain jurisdictions and/or localities.
According to Lee, the HAZMAT response information is based on the Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG), which includes information on more than 3,000 hazardous materials. In addition to providing health precautions and response guidance, FiRST also retrieves current and forecast weather data to show downwind protection zones for more than 600 materials that are dangerous if inhaled.
Lee told Breaking Gov that she has submitted a plan for a follow-on effort to enhance the app, but fiscal year 2013 funding is still pending approval.
“What we want to do is make the app interoperable with state and local emergency operations platforms,” said Lee. “So when a first responder puts information into the app, it can be displayed automatically in [state] emergency operations centers in real-time.”
Another enhancement that Lee plans is the ability to assign a team leader profile. This would enable an incident commander to input the data into the app and automatically update the app for all other first responders who are responding to the incident. In this way, individual first responders do not have to input their own data.
The FiRST app is available for purchase on iTunes, Google Play, and ARA’s e-commerce website for $11.99.