Following the jointly sponsored Wilson Center and National Alliance for Public Safety GIS Foundation event titled Liability and Reliability of Crowdsourced and Volunteered Information for Disaster Management, Zack Bastian interviewed Captain Xenophon “Yo” Gikas about the use of social media to rapidly gain situational awareness for emergency response and the potential role for “digital volunteers.” Captain Gikas is a 23 year veteran with the Los Angeles Fire Department. He also has held the positions of Firefighter, Chief Officer’s Staff Assistant, and Dispatcher.
Capt. Gikas, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. From looking at the arc of your career, you have had a long-term interest in the technological side of emergency management. What prompted that?
I was a business administration major at UCLA with an emphasis in accounting and information systems. I applied for the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) as a sophomore and did not hear back for four years. At that point, my career was already headed in a technological direction. After four years with the LAFD I was transferred to Operations Control where I was assigned as a dispatcher. My captain at the time was a computer wizard and put my skills to use. He taught me the inner workings of a PC, down to Windows and the DOS operating system. At the same time the department was in the midst of a large technology infusion including new command and control systems, voice and data radio networks, and other support technology. So, I was always around, learning about what my department had. Because of my curiosity and skills I was assigned to the project. It started from there and it hasn’t slowed down. My next assignment was to upgrade our timekeeping to an automated system, which is still in use today. From there I lead the effort to network all our fire stations. I was also assigned to Urban Search and Rescue, which involves a lot of technical equipment. I was our Fire Communications Officer responsible for a very wide range of communications systems and technologies. Technology has always been part of my experience in the fire service.
One of the biggest challenges in your job appears to be managing the massive workflows of requests for assistance. During your time in emergency response, how much has technology changed the way this huge influx of data is analyzed and prioritized?
It has had a massive impact, particularly from where I work in the Command and Dispatch Center. The volume of calls for service we can process efficiently and accurately has expanded a great deal. For example, we have implemented a digitized voice system including automatic resource assignment, where the person who takes the call can instantly send it on, automatically dispatching and alerting the fire station simultaneously. This removed a bottleneck in our dispatch queue resulting in significantly reduced response times. Our current systems can handle tasks in seconds instead of minutes compared to our previous systems. I was a dispatcher in the late 80s and early 90s and we processed half the calls we do today.
There are challenges along with improvements. When we are dealing with 911 calls from a landline, we know the address tagged with the call is most likely the location of the emergency. Cell phone requests are more complex and take longer to process. You have to have someone who’s capable of articulating where they are. The wireless 911 system is not capable of pinpointing the location of a cellular phone call all of the time.
That brings us to the social media issue. I focused on the pre-event aspects at [the Wilson Center’s and NAPSG’s joint panel on] Liability and Reliability [of Crowdsourced and Volunteered Information for Disaster Management]. Responding during an event using new media will involve next generation 911 systems. Right now our incorporation of social media into emergency response is unstructured and unreliable. This is something we will have to overcome. How do we get the valid information we need to place personnel in the right place at the right time?
When we talk about the disasters in Haiti or Japan, most of the social media use was after the event. That emergency system is not the type that I am routinely dealing with. There is no time to bring volunteers in the situations we confront daily. Texting and tweeting is physically possible today, but how do you process it when it comes to obtaining accurate and complete information that is actionable? Have you read a text from a teenager lately? Unless you are fluent in the latest three-letter shorthand or emoticons those text messages have no meaning [laughter]. Even when we have someone on the phone, we are not always able to obtain the necessary information to get help to the scene. These are the types of challenges we’re confronting.
When and how did you first become aware of crowdsourcing and its potential to enhance situational awareness in a crisis?
It first became a topic of discussion several years ago. I am around the technical stuff often, and do a lot of work with GIS and the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI). I have been a proponent of using GIS in fire response for some time. This is due in no small part to the fact I am colleagues with one of the sharpest guys on the subject, Brian Humphrey. Brian is a Public Information Officer for our department and is one of the nations’ premiere social media evangelists for fire response. We constantly discuss social media, GIS, crowdsourcing, and how they can be leveraged to provide better service to our citizenry. Having someone motivated to develop these concepts has helped me a great deal.
In your comments during Liability and Reliability, you spoke about Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) as a tool that can help bridge the gap of mistrust of the crowd. Can you describe the process of how they are structured and assembled?
The name describes them well: they are community volunteers. The difference is they are organized, trained and have structure. We train them, so there is a level of expectation to keep people safe and allow them to be effective during operations. By interfacing with our department we coordinate their activities and pull them into our network. The Los Angeles Fire Department is a regimented, hierarchical organization. Our structure keeps things organized, so we have overlaid it into our CERT programs. With the good nature of the citizen volunteers we are able to make that work really well. There is a sense of reliability with a CERT member. For many of them, we already know each other or we have been introduced, and have a baseline of expectations for one another. With that start, information can flow and be acted upon.
Have there been incidents where the CERTs in the Los Angeles area have improved your situational awareness in a crisis?
Recently, during the Los Angeles Marathon, the volunteers were organized along segments of the route to spot runners in need of assistance, provide accurate location information, and verify runner identification. They also assisted at various tents set up along the course. Later that evening we had a serious downpour affecting half of the City. CERT teams were active all through the night providing regular situation reports. We responded to many wires down. This is a safety hazard that we cannot leave unattended while waiting several hours or longer for the Department of Water and Power to arrive. In many cases CERT volunteers stood watch over the hazard making us available for response. Involved, informed citizens can help us save lives.
What are specific types of information these citizens can provide that help you do your job better?
We have disasters where CERTs are very much involved: the 1994 earthquake, for one. They did assessments of their area and gave us reports. With baseline training, they provide us information that is valuable because they know what we are looking for. More precise considerations such as: problems with water and gas mains as well as numbers of displaced residents, rather than just a generalized snapshot. These are simple things, but until you are trained to look for them, it can be difficult to pick them out. If there is a risk, then how many people are we talking about, and what types of structures are having problems? With training and awareness, they can provide us that honed information.
If someone reading this was interested in learning more about CERTs or finding out what it would take to put together one in their community, can you recommend any resources?
The first place to go would be the Internet. There is lot of information about CERT programs here and around the world. Beyond that, you could start through your city or county, contacting the local government, fire department, or emergency management department to find if they have a CERT program in place. If they do not, you can reach the emergency preparedness coordinator in your area and work to put one together.
Do you see other opportunities for leveraging technology to improve emergency response?
I do not believe we have even begun to leverage technology. We have seen massive technical developments in the last 200 years. The pace of these advances is continuously accelerating. Technology now is more powerful than ever. We reached the industrial revolution, and suddenly a bulldozer can do the work of 1,000 men and never get tired. In your hand you can gather information that used to take an army of people a month – Wikipedia fits on a thumb drive. This is an incredible time in which we are living. Not a lot of people stand back and recognize how profound these changes have been, and how quickly they happened. Applying technology advances to public safety is very important. Government is here to provide public safety services. When a disaster happens, the entire government becomes involved, but the ability of the government to use technology in those situations has barely been scratched.
When there is an earthquake and an area has been devastated, it takes a while to realize the full impact. We focus on life first, but where do you focus your energy once that is addressed? What do you repair first? These issues came into focus when I was responding to Katrina. At the time I was assigned to a joint project with the Los Angeles Police Department designed to identify and protect critical assets. Law enforcement and the fire department don’t consider the same things, so there was a gap between our questions. I was outside Biloxi, MS, doing an aerial assessment in a helicopter. Everything had been washed away, and I saw shipping containers under the water and strewn across the beach for a half mile. I immediately wanted to know how they got there, where were they before the hurricane, what was inside the containers? Technology could have provided those answers. We can do that via barcodes and modern inventory systems. Right now, you can log on to BestBuy.com and find out the inventory of every store, instantly. I expect that kind of progress to be made in providing government services. My goal is to put information in the hands of the responders before response is needed. What used to be completely unknown to responders, using technology, can be known before an event happens.
Social media creates human sensors. Someone with a broadband connected smart phone can do an amazing amount of things for emergency responders. Recently we’ve been working on project named Cell All: developing hazmat/biosensors built into cell phones. These tools can automatically detect dangerous carbon monoxide levels or a chlorine release for example. We could use this to automatically send a Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) message. The power of that early warning is incredible.
Consider any modern office building. They have built-in smart systems managing heat, elevator operations, exits, emergency response, and occupancy levels. These buildings are capable of alerting us of trouble before anybody can make a 911call. Along with the early notification is a wealth of information on the extent of the situation. With access to vital information I can sharpen the response and send exactly what is needed. Currently I must send a full response to gather information. The efficiency of sending a precise response has many benefits beyond the specific building. For example, there is great risk to firefighters and the public when we respond red lights and siren. Traffic accidents, many injuries and deaths happen every year during emergency response. Reducing the number of fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars responding emergency will save lives.
Right now today, there are countless ways to use technology to improve service and many more that have yet to be discovered.
Thanks very much to Captain Gikas for generously sharing his time and thoughts on the topic.
For more information about the Commons Lab of the Science and Technology Innovation Program, Woodrow Wilson Center, click here.
For more information about the National Alliance for Public Safety GIS Foundation, click here.
Contributor Zachary Bastian
Zachary Bastian is a third year student at George Washington University Law School. Before joining the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, he worked in the United States Senate studying policy and supporting the work of personal and subcommittee offices. His interests include disaster mitigation and recovery, and leveraging technology to support better government.
About Captain Xenophon “Yo” Gikas, Captain, Los Angeles Fire Department
Captain Xenophon “Yo” Gikas is a 23 year veteran with the Los Angeles Fire Department. He has also held the positions of Firefighter, Chief Officer’s Staff Assistant, and Dispatcher. Captain Gikas is currently assisting four technology interoperability programs having multi-agency and multi-jurisdictional impact. These projects include: The Tactical Information Program, a geographic information system (GIS) based system to deliver critical response information to front line emergency personnel; a HAZMAT sensor integration and interoperability project; the area wireless and reconnaissance evaluation project, a pre-deployed public events monitoring system; and the United States Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology Directorate’s First Responder Resource Group supporting the Virtual USA initiative. He also serves on the National Alliance for Public Safety GIS Foundation’s Southern California Regional Leadership Team. Throughout his career Captain Gikas’ responsibilities included performing analysis, design, and development on numerous projects involving mission critical systems. Captain Gikas attended the University of California at Los Angeles and California State University at Northridge earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration. He is also a certified hazmat technician as well as a Communications Specialist and Technical Search Specialist for FEMA’s California Task Force 1.