Information Technology For Emergency Management
Until recently (maybe 10 years ago), advanced information technologies were simply not available to emergency managers.
When disaster struck, lives and property hung in the balance while we tried desperately to keep up with events using pushpins, grease pencils, and clipboards. It was often a losing battle.
Today, of course, things have changed. We have been engulfed by the Information Revolution. Powerful new computer and communications systems are being introduced into our lives daily, and a number of which claim to support emergency management.
This sudden wealth of options, however, has not laid the technology issue to rest for emergency managers. Instead it has stirred up a whole new set of challenges.
How can you select a system or systems best suited to meet all of your needs? How can you be sure that the technology will perform if a crisis strikes today? How can you tell if it will grow to meet your future needs?
Even for those in the business of coping with death and destruction, these questions can prove intimidating.
I have spent many years discussing these topics with thousands of emergency professionals throughout the world.
Gradually, I have distilled from their comments the following checklist of attributes for an ideal emergency information system:
Emergency managers are unanimous in saying that they need one comprehensive system designed specifically for emergency management applications by experts in the field.
This system must be powerful and versatile enough to help address ALL kinds of hazards - from hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods to chemical spills, toxic releases and even terrorism.
For each hazard, it must be capable of supporting the entire emergency planning, response, recovery and mitigation process.
To do so, it must incorporate four essential tools of crisis management: data, maps, models, and communications.
Since disasters can occur at any moment, emergency managers are looking for a system that minimizes implementation time.
Ideally, the system should run on existing hardware and come fully loaded (at no additional charge!) with relevant map and data sets, including baseline information about each users locality and state, as well as the rest of the nation.
That baseline information should specify both vulnerabilities (e.g. schools and hospitals) and key emergency response resources.
This comprehensive emergency management system must be easy to learn and easy to use. Specifically, this means that it should offer the same intuitive interfaces as other consumer software products. These should include point and click mouse controls, simplified menus or prompts, and other conveniencesall within either the Windows or DOS environments.
Of course, it does not matter how good a system is if you can not afford to buy it. Emergency managers in different organizations operate under very different types of financial constraints, but all seem to favor relatively inexpensive systems. They want modular programs that let them buy everything they need, but only what they need. Emergency managers want all of this at a reasonable price, with complete operational systems starting from $500 and depending on the size and capabilities of the systems they choose, ranging up to 10 or 100 times that amount.
At the same time, however, emergency managers want the opportunity to upgrade their systems if necessary. They want to be assured that the version of the system they buy today will be fully compatible with all future versions, converting data and maps automatically.
Again, they want the ability to meet any level of need with modular enhancements, comprehensive systems, and major network installations (ranging to more than 100 users across many sites).
Emergency professionals want their emergency management system to also serve as a gateway to other complementary technologies, including: Geographic Information Systems, state-of-the-art modeling programs and sensors, Global Positioning Satellite technology, wordprocessors, spreadsheets, weather systems, access to the Internet, etc.
It must be a flexible, all-compatible system that allows you to import maps and data from this huge variety of sources and communicate with neighboring jurisdictions, the state, and key federal agencies.
Professionals in the field clearly prefer a system that has been designed and refined by experienced, award-winning emergency managers rather than generic software developers. They realize that such a system-flexible enough to adapt to their specific needs but based on an informed understanding of real-world emergencies-can do more than automate existing procedures. It can actually help them structure and improve the way they do business.
Given the life-or-death stakes in their profession and their need to coordinate operations with the rest of the emergency community, emergency managers try to select systems that are already well established in their field.
They hope that their essential systems will match those of surrounding localities, the state, the federal government, the military, and major corporations across the U.S. (and beyond). Not incidentally, choosing a consensus favorite is also believed to smooth the way for budgetary approval.
By the same token, emergency managers favor information technologies that have proven themselves in action over a number of years.
They prefer systems that have been successfully employed by a broad variety of users to plan for and respond to events large and small, disastrous or just potentially dangeroussuch as the Northridge earthquake, the Great Flood of 93, Super Bowl XXVIII, and innumerable everyday incidentsto ones that remain untested in the real world.
Emergency managers know better than anyone that no matter how good a system is, you still need to support it. Many of them have told us that they looked for a vendor who had made a strong commitment to support every product they sold.
This commitment should include comprehensive training capabilities plus full-time technical support during business hours and 24-hour assistance during an emergency.
If necessary, these emergency managers want a team of system experts and experienced emergency professionals to fly in to help them during an actual event.
This is a quick summary of what emergency managers say they want most in the way of information technology.
Some mentioned additional concerns (for instance, buying American) but this checklist should provide a good starting point for assessment and comparison of todays computer and communications alternatives.
In the end, theres no mystery or magic about how to judge emergency information systems.
Its just a matter of doing it...and then acting on your findings so the right system is installed and ready when you really need it.
M. Edward Gilbert is a retired Rear Admiral with the U.S. Coast Guard.
This article adapted from V8#2.
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