NATO Science presents: The Next-Generation Incident Command System
Questions and Answers with scientist Gregory Hogan
Location: Podgorica, Montenegro
Project name: The Next-Generation Incident Command System (NICS)
Project description: When first responders come together in an international disaster response force, they need to share information quickly – between military and civilians, and across borders and languages. NATO has supported the adaptation of a software platform in the Western Balkans, in which maps, videos and pictures can all be shared in real time. It is called the Next-Generation Incident Command System, or NICS for short, and has been developed by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States. The system has already been put to use in managing wildfires in California, and with this project is being deployed across the Western Balkans.
- How has NICS evolved since MIT first began its partnership with NATO's Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme?
NICS was originally intended for real-time response and coordination to large-scale wildland fires based on the American Incident Command System (ICS). While that system provides a flexible format for information-sharing, working with the project countries on a more diverse set of incidents allowed us to expand the capabilities of NICS beyond wildland fires and the system now truly supports reponses to all hazards in all nations.
NICS was built using open-source technology. At the beginning of our cooperation with the NATO SPS programme, the NICS authentication technology was no longer supported in the open-source community, which allowed us the opportunity to re-examine how we secure the system and what technology best met the needs and requirements of the larger community. This led us to a much improved authentication strategy.
- What was one of the biggest challenges or obstacles that you had to overcome while adapting this technology to different contexts and countries?
One of the biggest challenges is configuring the system to work in slightly different ways for different countries, without adding additional complexity to the system. Examples include different access controls for certain features and different visualisations of data to meet each country's needs. Our goal is to provide all four participating countries in the Western Balkans (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia) the same streamlined system that meets the needs of each country in a clean, maintainable manner.
- What can you tell us about testing this technology in field exercises in the Western Balkans?
The Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) exercises provided incredible opportunities to test the capabilities among different response teams and nations. We approached each opportunity cautiously, clearly defining what our goals were and what we hoped to accomplish.
Initially, in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2017, we worked in shadow mode so that the actual responders carried out their work as usual, but we had NICS users following each response team, gathering information, tracking and reporting back to incident command. This allowed us to understand what was reasonable and possible given the tasks at hand.
The 2017 EADRCC exercise informed our next effort in Serbia in 2018, where the responders themselves used the NICS mobile application to report information (images, messages, map mark-up) from the field. There were three different response teams: chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN); water rescue; and urban search and rescue (USAR). We quickly realised that when trying to locate them on the map, it was difficult to differentiate between them which led to one of our most valuable features – customised tracking feeds. NICS now allows users to build and stylise feeds of one to many people, so that teams of people are designated with unique markers and are geospatially identifiable. These feeds provide real-time location updates and can be shared with other geographic information systems (GIS) such as Google Earth.
- Can NICS be used also to coordinate the response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Yes! North Macedonia quickly adapted the system and NICS is used to coordinate their national response to the COVID-19 crisis and to provide the public with real-time information and advice. Read more about North Macedonia adopting NICS for their COVID-19 response.
Similar to the tracking feed that was conceived from the Serbian exercise, NICS allows users to build collaboration rooms, which are customised maps. In the case of COVID-19 response, a collaboration room can include locations of testing sites, quarantined areas and other valuable information. These rooms or maps can subsequently be shared to public websites. Therefore, when updated information becomes available to crisis management professionals, NICS users can update the collaboration room map and the information on the public website is immediately disseminated to the greater community.
- Do you foresee any innovations for NICS in the future? How would you like to see the technology evolve to meet the emergency response needs of tomorrow?
Working with other responding agencies, there is still a lot more we can do in terms of sharing and integrating data across existing systems to enable more efficient use of resources, immediate access to information and automating manual processes.
Learn more about other innovative science projects on the NATO Science main page.