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Technology in Emergency Management

By Geoffrey C. Bartlett, Director of Emergency Management, Tufts University

Geoffrey C. Bartlett, Director of Emergency Management, Tufts University

In 1971, the Office of Emergency Preparedness—a predecessor to FEMA— tasked one of its scientists to come up with a way for decision-makers spread across the country to collaborate in real-time in response to an emerging crisis. Thus was born the Emergency Management Information Systems And Reference Index (EMISARI) and a computer-based text chat system that is the precursor to so many instant message consumer technologies used by billions of people today. Such first-of-their-kind systems of the 1970’s, pioneered by federal research programs using computers costing more than $10 million (in 2018 dollars), begat many of today’s widely available and affordable off-the-shelf technologies. Drawing on these technologies, combined with the ubiquity of smartphones, personal computers, and growing technological fluency, emergency managers—and the CIO supporting the program—are achieving powerful capabilities within budgetary constraints.

Warning systems are the most publicly-visible use of emergency management technology. Evolved from the days of “we interrupt this broadcast,” we now reach citizens individually. Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) can send a 90-character text message to modern cell phones in a designated area, experienced by Americans during the nationwide test on October 3, 2018. Commercial alerting platforms offer additional modes including SMS text message, email, and voice telephony but require subscribers to pre-register. Insist on platforms that support the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) standard (required for WEA) to allow multiple systems to be joined for a “system of systems” approach to coordinated alerts. Smartphone apps offer longer messages, graphics, or hyper-local geo-targeting, but require recipients to download an app to receive the messages—a sometimes high barrier to widespread participation. Alerting app adoption is generally fewer than 2% of eligible participants at a time when Pew Research reports that 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone. Be careful to distinguish emergency notification from constituent engagement when defining policy. The underlying communications technologies may be similar but subscribers relish the ability to control if and how they receive non-urgent messages (e.g., trash pickup day has changed) vs. true emergencies where disruptive modes—WEA, SMS text, and/or phone call—are necessary to rapidly disseminate information.

"Purpose-built tools can fill a niche, but many of the tools of collaboration used daily can also serve emergency needs if applied with good procedures and consideration to resiliency"

Geographic Information System (GIS) technology is moving from desktop computers and large plotters into the cloud with easy-to-use tools for information sharing. A map can render details that could take thousands of words, allowing people to rapidly absorb mountains of information in a glance. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency uses their commercially-available GIS platform to share a real-time map of the Boston Marathon—a marquee annual sporting event in eastern Massachusetts—blending information from GPS transponders on official vehicles, electronic runner tracking, and incident reports into a constantly updated common operating picture. Free tools are aiding survivors and responders alike. A crowd-sourced online map steered people to open gas stations after Hurricane Sandy, and a Google.org crisis map made fresh aerial imagery available to help assess the damage from Hurricane Michael.

Purpose-built software products from several developers offer web-based solutions to virtualize the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), where representatives of key functions gather to coordinate the response. Such technologies are not replacing the physical EOC but are enhancing it, allowing information to be shared beyond its walls, and helping to document the incident response. The focal point of the Massachusetts State EOC used to be a massive map with a clear overlay intended to be marked with grease pencils. Today’s EOC is an array of screens that project digital maps, status boards, and event logs, with the advantage that such information is also available to partners outside the EOC, and is permanently documented—crucial for the federal reimbursement process if an incident reaches the threshold for a presidential disaster declaration.

Don’t overlook the tools you use every day. Purpose-built tools can fill a niche, but many of the tools of collaboration used daily can also serve emergency needs if applied with good procedures and consideration to resiliency. Ubiquitous smartphones and tablets document damage with geo-tagged and time-stamped photographs. Web-based meeting tools combine audio teleconference, video teleconference, and screen sharing and are accessible on computers, tablets, and smartphones. Establish a pre-configured meeting with an access code that doesn’t change and you’ve created a way for decision-makers to assemble right away when a crisis occurs, much as EMISARI did for government leaders in the early 70’s. Even your physical EOC can benefit from off-the-shelf technology. In his industry presentation in 2015 “Hacking the EOC,” Marc Burdiss, then a university emergency manager in Arizona, shared his approaches for using consumer technologies to enable formerly expensive capabilities such as screencasting or video conferencing. One caution, however; email may seem a natural choice for information sharing, but beware the potential for a deluge of messages. One organization opted for a web-based solution after a two-hour preparedness exercise resulted in over 1,000 messages in the EOC common mailbox—more than any mere human could digest in real-time.

Our abilities to generate and share information are unprecedented, which can be overwhelming. Good procedures are as important as good technologies. Practice and refine those procedures in exercises and planned events to make sure your technology supports the mission. EMISARI’s developers were prescient about the risk of overload, recognizing the value of a pithy message and setting a length limit long before “tweet” entered the technical lexicon.

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