How prepared are you?

By Anne Bonaparte

While 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina may have been the wake-up call for municipalities in terms of trying to figure out how to best manage disasters, for many cities, disaster recovery plans are still a work in progress. Torrential rainfall and destructive flooding in Colorado. The Boston Marathon bombing. Superstorm Sandy crashing ashore in New Jersey and New York. These are just a few examples of recent natural and manmade disasters that have had devastating consequences on cities around the United States and challenged them to continue reviewing and improving their disaster recovery plans and procedures.

A vital component of these plans are often mobile solutions and GPS location services, which can be used by first responders, law enforcement and other public workers who are on the front lines. GPS is critical for create maps to identify where response teams need to go, and can be made available to citizens online to keep them apprised of response and recovery activities. Other valuable elements of these plans include mobile applications and specially designed forms that can be used by city workers in the field on their smartphones and tablets for communications, dispatching, assigning and reporting on jobs and activities, and collecting data related to the operations.

The Turning Point

Most experts point to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina as the turning point, at which time cities had to rethink conventional notions about how to plan for and recover from disasters.

In the aftermath of 9/11, New York City Fire Department asked McKinsey & Company to work with the NYFD to develop recommendations for changes that would enhance the department’s preparedness. McKinsey noted, however, that there were limitations in communications capabilities that hindered NYFD chiefs in coordinating the department’s response, both internally and with other agencies. For example, the portable radios used that day did not work well in high-rise buildings without having their signals amplified and rebroadcast by a repeater system. The World Trade Center had such a system, but it was tested early on in the response and was found to be inoperable.

One of McKinsey’s recommendations to address these issues was to deploy “electronic command boards” that could display maps, building plans and location characteristics, and the locations of deployed personnel. McKinsey further recommended using wireless transmission of location data to create remote backups of these boards.

Similar breakdowns in emergency communications were reported in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as storm surges destroyed communications towers. As a result, after Katrina, regional officials placed priority on implementing an effective and redundant voice and data communications system that for sharing law enforcement and first responder information, including location data, across New Orleans parish and jurisdictional boundaries.

Both 9/11 and Katrina were terrible tragedies on a massive scale. But what was learned during these two incidents about the role of technology has since been applied to recovery of natural and manmade disasters, as well as routine storm cleanup, in cities of all sizes.

The impact of mobile solutions: Superstorm Sandy clean up

A case in point was New York City’s response to Hurricane Sandy, which made landfall on the East coast of the United States on Oct. 29, 2012. Sandy affected 24 states in all, but hardest hit were New Jersey and New York. Entire communities were destroyed by flooding, leaving tens of thousands of people homeless. Mass transit was crippled. The storm caused billions of dollars of infrastructure and property damage. Power was cut to more than 8 million homes, some of which remained dark for weeks. And communications networks were destroyed.

In addition to these problems, Sandy left an estimated four million cubic yards of debris across New York City's five boroughs, according to The New York Times. Blocking roadways, sidewalks, building entrances, parks and beaches, this debris could have soon become giant piles of rotting waste, threatening public safety and impeding the task of getting the city moving again. The more than 9,000 New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) employees needed to clean up the debris as quickly, efficiently and safely as possible. This task required mobilizing a massive cleanup effort within hours of the storm subsiding, as soon as it was safe for sanitation crews to begin work.

During normal operations, DSNY crews are assigned regular routes with scheduled pickup days. To help with dispatching and monitoring the locations and activities of its mobile teams, the Department uses mobile apps on workers’ smartphones and tablets and a cloud-based management application for office-based supervisors and other personnel. The solution used by DSNY enables the department to configure forms that streamline the department’s data collection and reporting activities. To manage recovery from Sandy, the DSNY deployed a custom form used by supervisors in the field to electronically document, describe and report back on conditions on the ground.

Using the new form, supervisors began surveying damage in affected areas, using the mobile app to note what types of crews and equipment would be needed and where, depending on the nature and location of the debris. This data was transmitted back to headquarters where the detailed descriptions of debris and its locations were used to plan the massive cleanup and schedule work crews and equipment.

DSNY office personnel mapped the data being gathering to create a visual representation of the debris field to be addressed the next day. All normal routes, pickup days and crew assignments were suspended and replaced by massive neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweeps.

Information collected using the mobile forms guided District personnel who assigned equipment and helped ensure DSNY sent out the right equipment for the job the first time around. It also allowed the department to keep a detailed electronic record of what it did, for example, what kind of debris was collected and how from any location in the city during any 24-hour period.

New York City is also prepared for impending severe winter weather with a program called PlowNYC. During snowstorms, data about the locations of the department's snowplows is fed into the PlowNYC system, which displaysmaps of the city that are shared with the public.  The maps are updated every 15 minutes. Being able to view the locations and progress of snowplows helps New York City residents stay abreast of snow removal efforts in their neighborhoods and plan faster and safer routes to work, school and home during and after snowstorms.

By leveraging mobile apps and other wireless technologies, such as GPS location services, in disaster recovery, New York and a growing number of other cities are increasing efficiency in their response efforts and better serving citizens in times of need.

Anne Bonaparte is CEO of Xora, Inc., North America’s number one market leader in mobile workforce management. Visit Xora on the web at

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