Protecting the vulnerable and strengthening disaster preparedness with new technology

By Noah Reiter

Following last winter’s deep freeze across much of the country, and significant storms, emergency management officials are preparing for what is forecast to be another challenging season. Under an all-hazards approach to emergency preparedness, winter weather is approached and responded to in a similar way as other emergencies, but there are unique challenges.

When winter weather strikes, critical infrastructure, such as the power grid or the transportation network, is often impacted. While power companies maintain information on which customers have critical electricity needs (e.g. for a ventilator), this is typically not shared with state and local emergency managers until an outage. This severely limits emergency management’s ability to plan for the needs of these residents in advance. The same holds true for the elderly population, who are far more sensitive to extreme temperatures than younger individuals.

Simply knowing where people with critical dependencies on electricity are located, and the needs of those requiring special attention, can greatly assist with proper positioning and resourcing of emergency shelters or warming centers, as well as support effective coordination with officials responsible for public health and medical services during a disaster.

Most offices of emergency management maintain detailed inventories of critical infrastructure, vulnerabilities, states of repair, and hotspots around their jurisdictions frequently impacted (such as roads that consistently flood or ice over). Emergency managers and engineers, and public works officials that support them, do this well. What isn’t as straightforward is collecting, maintaining and leveraging critical information about the community’s most valuable asset – its people. Not only will the majority of this data be voluntarily shared, but the movement of a jurisdiction’s population is dynamic, even throughout the course of the day, and commuters and visitors present additional unknowns.

The complex makeup of our communities, and shortcomings in recent disaster response to those with specific needs, has driven FEMA’s focus on the concept of “Whole Community Preparedness.” That is, the effort to develop emergency operations plans around all the needs of the community, rather than a small portion of the population viewed as self-sufficient. To do so, it’s vital to understand the demographics of residents and visitors.

Enhancing Preparedness & Response Through Technology

To overcome challenges of collecting actionable information to communicate with and assist vulnerable populations during an event, many jurisdictions utilize a cloud-based or software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution for citizen-provided information. When evaluating systems to effectively collect and manage this information, emergency management should consider how they address these challenges.

  • Scale: A best-of-breed solution for managing citizen-supplied information should leverage a web-based platform, with geographically redundant facilities and infrastructure designed to handle peak loads of thousands or even millions of records and web requests. A robust platform will allow for collection of not only traditional vulnerable needs information, but also non-traditional information such as pet or livestock ownership that is extremely valuable during an incident. The platform should keep the information up-to-date and age-out data that hasn’t been updated after a specified period of time.
  • Interoperability: Data through a citizen-facing website should be formatted and structured to allow reporting across jurisdictions. For example, a state-level official may be interested in critical electricity needs, spanning multiple cities and counties, in the aftermath of severe weather causing what is expected to be extended power and transportation interruptions. Information returned through these queries should be easily integrated with or exported for use by other systems – whether for emergency notifications or tasks with collaboration tools.
  • Data Privacy: The security features of a SaaS (or in-house solution) are very important. These should also provide liability protection for the jurisdiction collecting personal data. All data should be stored in top tier, geo-redundant hosting facilities, with data encryption technologies. All users should digitally accept terms and conditions covering liability for agencies. These terms can be updated and re-accepted during regularly-scheduled data updates, if necessary. Activities in the system and data access should be logged to provide an audit trail for administrators. Finally, jurisdictions should address human factors impacting security, creating strong policies around password security, securing laptops and other devices containing sensitive information.
  • Public Participation: Scalability afforded by a cloud-based solution allows the broader population to participate in a program. Members of a community feel more comfortable sharing information and, ultimately, providing emergency managers with vital data when specific portions of the population aren’t solely targeted. Examples of how jurisdictions have successfully promoted these systems include mass communication channels, use of school systems, advocacy groups, faith-based organizations and emergency notification systems.
  • Integrated Emergency Notification: When coupled with a solution that collects information about disabilities, access and functional needs, the emergency manager needs the ability to tailor messages to the recipient. By identifying potential communications challenges, and working with either translators or other subject matter experts, officials can craft messages that are easily understood. Furthermore, specific instructions that differ from those sent to the entire population can be sent to groups with known specific needs.

A jurisdiction’s responsibility to plan for and manage an incident can be overwhelming. While an emergency manager will never be able to achieve total situational awareness, and some decisions will have to be made on incomplete information, demographic data greatly improves response. Fortunately, technology is now providing tools that empower emergency management like never before.

Noah Reiter, MPA, has two-decades of experience in EMS, emergency and city management.
He is director of industry solutions for Rave Mobile Safety, a software provider for campus and public safety. Rave is the creator of SmartPrepare, which enables emergency management to better prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters, emergencies and severe weather, as well as the acclaimed public safety service, Smart911.

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