Sunday, March 29, 2009

Emergency Management

Information Technology and Emergency Management
I was recently asked to give some insight and a presentation into how Information and Communications Technology (ICT) could be leveraged for Emergency Management. So for this post I will share what I presented to the Assembly of First Nations national broad band task force.

The challenge for ICT is to balance and broker the person with content and applications.
Spring is here and with it comes its rain and hope for a better day. However, reality dictates that for most of us this is a time of year of watching water levels and checking thawing rates to determine what type of ride the journey to summer will be.

Information technology and technology in general can play a vital role in all sides of the emergency. The lead up to an emergency is the preparedness side and sadly, in the event of an emergency the reactionary side of the solution is engaged. The Management side of the proposal is directing and engaging all the stakeholders throughout the entire process.

The time tested adage of “plan for worst and hope for the best” is a good strategy in this context.

This is where the greatest potential benefit can be had for Information technology. It is the boring day to day upkeep of the plan and all its components. This benefit can be realized in good information management, communications portals and best practices repositories. No one group has all the answers for all the problems. Technology can be leveraged to share the wealth of these previous emergencies to aid in the ones yet to be realized. The traditional model of every jurisdiction or geographical area taking care of their area in isolation has proven over and over again to be ineffective and at times deadly.

The tools and information are available today to assist those communities with little or no expertise to follow a proven methodology to get their respective areas prepared. This type of work can be as simple as automated call out trees, support contacts, lists and locations of emergency supplies, best practices documentations and to the more complex information toolkits. Education and awareness is crucial not just for the constituents of the community but also those who are entrusted to action the emergency plan when needed.

There is a large misconception that minor and major levels of government are prepared for emergencies. In many cases this is true, however, like all of us they are only as good as the plan and the plan needs to be flexible, current and adaptable. So for those recurring emergencies like, floods, fire and black outs the current plans are normally fine. This is because they have had time to test and trial them. However, what about emergencies they have not experienced before. The classic example of this was SARS in 2003.

If you take this discussion to smaller communities you are relying on overworked individuals who may not know how to build a proper Emergency Plan let alone get the community prepared.

The preparedness side of the equation is typically heavy towards content management and plan development. The major tool that can be leveraged for this role is content management.

Emergency Response
This is where failing to plan causes failure. Information Technology needs to be tested and like all things in Information Technology it needs to be able play nicely with others. Take for example a large scale emergency that involves, fire, ambulance and policing. They all have mobile communications and what do you do if they can’t speak to each other? Truth is, this is common and control centers get jammed, confusion reigns and ineffective execution follows. You do not have to look far to see what can transpire. A good plan has proven its elements to be functioning and it must be tested.

The response side of the equation is strong to application usage, status update, issue tracking and execution of existing plans. The content management system will used as reference for current action plans. The major application being used in the response side is typically issues management.

Emergency management
This is the element that allows the leaders and coordinators of an emergency plan to keep track of events, actions and conditions in as close to real-time as possible. This allows for effective communications and coordination of resources, tools and people to deal with the emergency and the information flow to and from all parties. Simple issues tracking systems can and should play an integral part of an effective Emergency Management solution. A fully utilized portal is an excellent tool to manage emergencies especially if the scope is multi-jurisdiction and multi-disciplined.

In conclusion, this is just a small insight into the role of Information Technology and how it can help build, maintain, test and deliver the emergency response plan. There is only one other factor that is more important than technology in the case of an emergency and that is people leadership.

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