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Technology Planning for Civil Emergencies

19 September 2005 at 1:09 pm
Staff Reporter
Hurricane Katrina has left many 'first world' countries wondering about their own organisational preparedness to deal with the a similar catastrophe.

Staff Reporter | 19 September 2005 at 1:09 pm


Technology Planning for Civil Emergencies
19 September 2005 at 1:09 pm

Hurricane Katrina has left many ‘first world’ countries wondering about their own organisational preparedness to deal with the a similar catastrophe. One Australian crisis volunteer expert has offered his advice to Not for Profits in the USA.

Australian Don Cameron, a former regional officer for the NSW Rural Fire Service, has prepared a guide that has just been published by the US Not for Profit online technology resource organisation called

We republish an edited version of this comprehensive guide with their permission.

Prepare your organisation to deal with the unthinkable….

Acts of terrorism, hurricanes, cyclones, wildfires, drought and famine, major power outages – natural or man-made disasters will impact us all at one time or another.

Aid organisations and other Not for Profits are frequently called to assist with disaster recovery efforts, even though this may not be a core function of their work.

Still, they’re often recognised as organisations that are out in the community, willing to help, and able to mobilise teams of people. Depending on the type of disaster and availability of other resources, your organisation may even find itself acting as a defacto emergency service assisting victims with first aid, transport, or counselling.

Not for Profits may be asked to take on any of the following roles during a disaster:
– Support of incident management, planning, logistics, or resources
– Incident victim registrations
– Public health support (counselling or other roles)
– Transportation for victims or other impacted people
– The provision of emergency food, clothing, or housing
– Technical support (helping with computers, facsimiles or other equipment)
– Community communications liaison (getting the message out)
– Language translation services
– Any other act or service required to help establish normalcy

The cost in human and financial terms to any organisation involved with emergency recoveries can be severe, especially when proper management processes are not implemented before the emergency strikes.

As always, preparation and planning are critical, as much as they are for helping a single victim or a large community.

Disaster management can involve dozens of agencies and organisations. To be successful, it relies on systems designed to provide a level of control and effective communications to, from, and between all involved in the response effort.

In emergency management terms, the system is referred to as the “Incident Command System,” a hierarchical system designed to streamline response efforts into a cohesive and manageable whole.

Communications is the key element of effective emergency management. Nothing can be done if people cannot be contacted; the lives of staff and volunteers can be placed at risk if you don’t know where they are or cannot get in touch with them.

Disaster recovery work also calls for innovation: people doing work they would not normally do in a very stressful and challenging environment.

Systems and Communications Mobility: When you’re working in a disaster recovery role, you might travel to the field frequently, and maintaining communications is vital to the success of your efforts. Yet mobile communications systems are often the first to fail. Telephone lines are cut, mobile telephones become overloaded or otherwise disrupted, and electricity may not be available. In worst-case scenarios, your office may be damaged.

This poses a significant problem to aid organisations unless appropriate steps are taken to minimise reliance on large-scale communications infrastructure.

Back-up or redundant emergency communications systems should incorporate hardware unlikely to be impacted by the disaster. Several hand-held UHF radios will provide effective communications over a short distance. A satellite telephone can provide effective remote communications, although not in all circumstances (heavy cloud cover or smoke can affect the performance of satellite equipment). Mobile telephones able to “roam” between various networks are preferable to telephones reliant on any single network.

Depending on the role your organisation takes on, mobile computer recording and reporting systems may be vital to your efforts. Organisations that are likely to assist with disaster recovery often maintain one or more briefcases equipped with a laptop computer, several spare batteries, a printer, and a modem-equipped mobile telephone suitable for use in the field.

In addition, GPS (Geographical Positioning Systems) technology offers significant safety benefits at a relatively low cost. A portable GPS can be invaluable to workers unfamiliar with terrain who need to identify their location quickly and accurately, or need help finding something.

It is a good idea to appoint someone in your organisation to maintain emergency communications and data systems just in case. This person might also serve as the “Liaison Officer” for your organisation by working with other agencies and organisations to ensure you remain informed and are able to communicate with them.

The Office systems need to be adequately supported by back-up power (a UPS, or Uninterruptible Power Supply) and line filters designed to protect your equipment from power spikes or outages. The UPS chosen should be capable of providing power long enough to properly shut down your systems, or ideally until a generator is able to restore operations.

Choosing a UPS involves calculating your power consumption under normal business operations (an electrician can do this for you), and assessing the period of time required to shut down or hand over power to a generator. As a rule of thumb, your UPS should maintain power for at least half an hour.

Your office should be designed to factor in that electricity may not be available. Air conditioning and lighting frequently fail during a disaster. Ideally, natural lighting and ventilation (windows that can open) should be incorporated into office designs and layouts along with emergency lighting, signs, and other safety measures. Be sure important equipment and records are stored in a flood-proof location.

Appoint someone to act as “Services Coordinator.” This person will be responsible for finding alternatives when utility services like power or telephone access fails.

Staff and Volunteer Call-Out Rosters: When you’re involved in a recovery effort, you will undoubtedly receive offers of help from members of your community. It is important to log these offers and allocate tasks as appropriate, although you will not need the help of everyone who offers.

Establish an emergency roster for your staff and volunteers that highlights as many individual skills as possible (although volunteers may be asked to provide skills outside their core activities).

When people volunteer to assist, make sure you record their availability, contact details, and any specific skills, even if these don’t seem relevant immediately. Ask for references or experience to support any claims.

At the earliest possible opportunity, establish a call-out and work roster. Be sure to consider acceptable work hours, the stressful nature of the work, and any other important factors. If necessary, bring in additional help (or accept external offers) to ensure your staff and volunteers are not overworked to the point of carelessness or negligence.

If you have access to pagers or spare mobile telephones, distribute these to key personnel and ensure they are rotated at the end of a shift to provide the best possible coverage and value. Record all equipment transfers or allocations.

Appropriate Management Protocols: We all know the job is not done until the paperwork is finished. Certainly, this is true for organisations involved in an emergency. Computing systems can help to manage tasks efficiently and effectively.

Restoring order after an emergency is a long process that often involves such things as counselling, claims against insurers or government agencies, asset replacements, and possibly even court investigations requiring accurate book-keeping and records.

Authorities may also need these records to determine the cause and effect of an emergency, and to minimise the impact of a future emergency.

Most communities have some sort of emergency management committee able to help your organisation prepare for emergency roles, and it’s a good idea to approach these agencies early (before an emergency strikes). Local police and fire services can also assist or provide useful contact details. Smaller or disadvantaged communities may not have these resources, so organisations in such communities should implement some basic tools to prepare themselves.

A basic tool-set includes spreadsheets or databases designed to help manage expected tasks. While specialised software can be developed on the fly, this should always be a last resort (you will certainly have more than enough to think about during the emergency without having to stop and develop software).

At a minimum, you will need systems to track costs, personnel hours and deployments, physical resources used, and to register any victims — either as an appointed task or ad-hoc as victims approach you throughout the course of the emergency.

The following offers a guide for developing these basic management tools.

Sample fields for a short-term organisational volunteer register
– Name of Incident (i.e.Cyclone Sam)
– Date of Incident
– Volunteer’s Name
– Sex
– Address and Telephone Number
– Date of Birth
– Next of Kin
– Next of Kin contact details
– Date and Time of Registration
– Registration Centre Name
– Date of dispatch
– Time of dispatch
– Dispatched to (where were they sent)
– Required task (what are they doing)
– Date returned
– Time returned
– Expenses claimed

Sample fields for an Emergency Organisational Costs Spreadsheet:
– Name of Incident
– Date of Incident
– Item (could be staff wages)
– Unit
– Cost
– Name of requesting authority (fire services or police, for example)
– Contact name (Fire Chief, for example)

Sample fields for a Disaster Victim Registration Spreadsheet
– Name of Incident
– Date of Incident
– Victim’s Name
– Sex
– Address, Telephone
– Date of Birth
– Next of Kin
– Next of Kin contact details
– Date and Time of Registration
– Registration Centre Name
– Name of person entering the information (if not the victim)
– Health Status (injured or otherwise incapacitated)
– Housing status (home destroyed, etc.)
– Victim’s location at the time of the emergency
– Immediate losses included clothing, housing, or other items (may not be known; detail each item)
– Immediate aid required (prescription drugs, food or clothing etc; detail each item)
– Short-term location details (where will the victim be for the next few hours?)
– Additional Notes

Sample fields for a Resource Allocations Spreadsheet:
– Name of Incident
– Date of Incident
– Name of requesting authority
– Resource Type (human or physical)
– Resource Name (Jane Smith, photocopier, etc.)
– Date Required
– Time Required
– Allocated tasks
– Expected duration
– Date returned
– Time returned

Editor’s note: Don Cameron is a former regional officer for the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, a volunteer service. He has supervised 12,000 volunteer firefighters throughout the Central-West area. He has also worked as a resource officer managing and tracking resources during Australia’s largest fire crises in terms of response and helped manage 2,000 firefighters, 500 vehicles and aircraft, and a dozen NFP’s acting in various support and welfare capacities. He has also developed and implemented several computer-based emergency dispatch and response systems in use throughout the state. He currently works in the NSW Mining Industry specialising in IT and it currently in Sri Lanka assisting with IT issues post-Tsunami.

If you would like the sample volunteer/victim registration spreadsheets just log on to the TechSoup link and click on the downloads at the end of the article.

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