Role of ICT staff in emergency response on the rise

Information and communication technology is becoming increasingly integrated into the response teams for emergencies, while social networks are important channels for agencies involved in disaster responses.

CIO at the New Zealand Fire Service (NZFS), Alma Hong, says the earthquakes that shook Wellington on Sunday highlight this.

“The boundary between civilian ICT staff and operations staff – people in uniform responding to emergencies – is increasingly merging."

A prime example is the involvement of the ICT in setting up the Hazardous Material (Hazmat) Command Vehicles that can be deployed very quickly to emergency scenes “where local infrastructure is compromised”.

Hong explains these vehicles, used during the Christchurch earthquakes, contain all channels of connectivity and technology on board, “from satellite to cellular and radio”.

Following the Wellington quakes, the Fire Service is diverting a number of these vehicles into Wellington. There are also ICT staff members on standby to provide support to the vehicles in case these will be deployed.

Geospatial specialists are also on standby to represent the captured information in a way that can be shared effectively.

She says ICT is not in the “back room any more” during emergencies. “We ICT professionals are becoming increasingly useful members of the whole team,” says Hong.

At the same time she notes the role social networks play during times of emergencies.

“Social media is where most people go for information,” she says, citing the active Facebook and Twitter pages of WREMO or Wellington Region Emergency Management Office. This site is run by the Wellington City Council and Greater Wellington Regional Council and “was very much the authoritative source of emergency” during the Sunday quakes.

Hong says agencies such as the NZFS need to understand how to harness the many channels of information including social media; and at the same time have ways to distinguish which information is important.

The public, meanwhile, needs to understand which are reliable sources to get their information. “Not their friend, not the general social network,” she says.

“Nowadays most people have smartphones so information from these social networks is at their fingertips literally,” says Hong. “They can run out of the house and they are either consuming or contributing their information to it while they tweet to their friends.”

For NZFS, the value of the technology team is in the “planning and preparedness” to deal with emergencies.

“It is about enabling the capture of information, providing awareness to the situation and its rapid assessment,” she says.

She explains there are two types of information - the “raw” and “assessed”. The information from whatever source it comes from is assessed and made available to the emergency people who need this assessment to make the decision.

“So technology plays a huge part in this,” she says. This information is valuable when the emergency teams are already responding to events, like saving people from collapsing buildings or putting out fires.

Drawing insights from the February 2011 earthquakes in Christchurch, Hong says within the first few hours, NZFS had already received over 900 phone calls. In the next 24 hours, over 400 firefighters, police, and urban search and rescue officers were on the scene, together with the ICTS team.

As CIO, Hong oversaw the IT and emergency radio systems, spatial intelligence programmes, and stressed business as usual work like managing rostering and deployment systems.

Her advice for disaster planning is to make sure the CIO and the IT team communicate regularly with their colleagues before, during and after the crisis.

“Our role is to make sure we communicate with our colleagues. There should hardly be anything going on that we’re not aware of,” she says.

She says it is not about planning for every eventuality, but being prepared to go out and prioritise the mission critical work.

“When you’re designing something you have to look at the bigger picture,” says Hong. “Make sure your plan gets your people in a ready mindset to go out there and work on what is most important.”

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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