Renee Domingo, Manager of the Emergency Management Services Division for Oakland’s Fire Department, discusses her city’s groundbreaking approach to curb crime and clears up rumors surrounding the highly controversial new project.

Much debate has arisen regarding the Joint Port/City Domain Awareness Center being developed in Oakland, California. However, with its history of earthquakes, wildfires, oil spills, plane crashes, and civil unrest, Oakland, California has abundant experience in recognizing the need to coordinate emergency communications, response and recovery in an effort to save lives, minimize property losses and damage to the environment. We understand first-hand the critical need for real-time, up-to-the minute public information and the ability to provide the best resource management during a crisis.

Seventy-eight square miles in size and home to 400,000 residents, Oakland is the seventh largest city in California, and in the last 10 years has been ranked in the top 10 in the nation for diversity, use of renewable energy, percentage of women-owned business, percentage of Gay, Lesbian and Transgender residents and families, the “most wired” metro area, the greenest city, best place to retire, most fun city, best climate and best drinking water. Oakland is the major transportation hub for Northern California, with freeways, rapid transit, train service, ferry service and the second largest airport in the state, handling 10 million passengers a year. The Oakland Airport is the #1 air cargo airport in the Bay Area. As the fifth busiest container Port in the nation, the Port of Oakland is a major economic driver for Northern California, handling 99% of all containerized goods in Northern California. The Port supports more than 73,000 jobs within the Bay Area region and is connected to nearly 827,000 jobs across the nation. Additionally, the Port stewards nearly 20 miles of waterfront along the San Francisco Bay. Keeping this infrastructure safe, secure and operational is critical and of paramount importance to Oakland, California and the nation’s economy. Oakland is literally and figuratively the heart of the Bay Area.

Unfortunately, Oakland also holds the current distinction of a city with the highest per-capita crime rate in California. Oakland’s long history of civil discourse and protest adds to the need. The Oakland Emergency Operations Center has been partially or fully activated more than 30 times in the past three years to respond to large demonstrations and protests.

When the opportunity arose to compete for American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funding under the Port Security Grant funding program, Oakland and the Port came together to create proposal that would go way beyond security and support real-time emergency response for the full-range of extreme hazards in our urban setting.

The proposal was to upgrade Oakland’s existing Emergency Operations Center to a multi-faceted, integrated incident management system, a joint Port/City Domain Awareness Center. The proposal was viewed by FEMA as being innovative, collaborative, cost-effective and efficient. Phase 1 of the project was approved and $2.9 million in grant funding was awarded to make upgrades to the Video Display Wall and to purchase and install a bank of new computers and a new network.

The proposed Domain Awareness Center will bring this level of functionality to first responders that would streamline emergency response and assist with identifying when, as well as where, resources need to be deployed. This type of integrated incident management, whether it is responding to a fire, hazardous materials incident or a crime in progress, will provide a direct benefit to the Oakland community.

With increasing pressure for more efficient and cost effective use of resources, the Port and City of Oakland are working together to develop  a Joint Port/City Domain Awareness Center (DAC) under  Federal Port Security Grant. The DAC builds on the Oakland Emergency Operations Center’s leadership in multi-agency planning, implementation and disaster recovery following major incidents, and pioneers a new, collaborative approach to the next generation of emergency management and crime prevention using technology as a force multiplier.  Most important, the DAC will save lives and provide a common operating picture for first responders to protect critical port assets and to improve multi-agency response capability for all emergency incidents occurring in Oakland.

The DAC consolidates a network of existing video surveillance and security sensor data to actively monitor critical Port facilities, utility infrastructure, City facilities and roadways. Information management software would be utilized together with video analytics to efficiently screen and monitor data as well as coordinate incident management. The DAC provides situational awareness and response capabilities, linking monitoring data with police and fire dispatch centers. Eventually, the DAC will serve as a 24/7 center focusing on interoperability and multi-agency coordination of prevention, preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation efforts.

Developing such a system comes with many challenges. The first phase of the planning process focused on developing a joint Memorandum of Understanding to deal with governance structure, chain of command and responsibility between the Port and the City.  It was imperative that everyone’s interests were met—the Port, Oakland Police Department, the Oakland Fire Department and the City of Oakland. There were questions about the compatibility of equipment, systems and procedures among the different entities, and decisions to be made about how we incorporate external partners into the system.

During the process of obtaining approval from the Oakland City Council for Phase II of the Domain Awareness Center (DAC), there were community members as well as the ACLU who spoke out against moving forward with the DAC.  The heated debate that these members and the ACLU purport is that the Joint Port/City DAC will serve as “warehouse” for the aggregation of video and data into one centralized center and/or system. They allege that studies show that video surveillance does not reduce crime and that the aggregation of data/video in one centralized location/system creates misuse which infringes on privacy.

While it is important to acknowledge these concerns, it is essential to emphasize that the intention for establishing the joint Port/City DAC never included any type of “warehousing” of video and/or data for law enforcement purposes or information sharing. Additionally, various large metropolitan cities on the east coast have recent studies that support a reduction in non-violent crimes with video surveillance or Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) technologies. Therefore, it imperative for the City to draw meaningful conclusions from this debate.

At the forefront of this debate is the issue of privacy. Phase II of our DAC project and process will focus on developing policies, procedures and safeguards to maintain the delicate balance between privacy and public safety.

There isn’t a lot of information about best practices for this type of endeavor that involves a port and city DAC. We are open to working with privacy experts, the ACLU and other partners to further advance the field of emergency management, privacy standards as they relate to DACs and public safety which includes crime fighting.

We believe that Oakland is on the right track as we forge new ground in the frontier of integrated technologies for Homeland Security,  a more efficient and effective management of emergencies and the advancement of public safety to save lives.

By Renee Domingo, Manager, Emergency Management Services Division, City of Oakland Fire Department