firefighter at work
PHOTO: Arny Mogensen

The recent earthquake off the coast of Alaska, the flu epidemic, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, the wildfires in California, the Equifax hack, the opioid crisis ...

The latter half of 2017 was rife with devastating disasters, both natural and man-made, and early 2018 isn’t showing any signs of slowing on that front. Resources are stretched thin, and disaster response efforts face scrutiny from government agencies, survivors, politicians and the public. 

A lot of money and other resources, including human resources, have been devoted to battling these problems, but we have to do better. And much of it comes down to the way we manage information.

The technology industry has made huge strides in creating large-scale efficiencies in everything from manufacturing to customer service, financial services and even everyday conveniences (think of ride-hailing apps and mobile payment systems). Advances in using big data, machine learning, automation and cloud computing have fueled these steps. In that context, we have to ask the questions: Why aren’t government agencies, businesses and other organizations better prepared to deal with emergencies? How can we use our collective technological genius to better anticipate, prepare for, minimize or prevent, and recover from potential disasters?

Three Stages of Disaster

There are three primary stages of any potential disaster: advanced preparedness and prevention, in-the-moment management, and recovery and learning. A number of technologies have emerged to incrementally improve emergency responses at various stages. Communication and warning systems from companies such as xMatters and Everbridge have made it easier for organizations and municipalities to effectively notify people of emergency situations and advise them of the steps they should take to stay safe. But situations change quickly. Wouldn’t it be great if live maps could be shared to show people exactly where to go if an evacuation is necessary?

Smartphone apps that offer helpful solutions played prominent roles during the recent hurricanes. For instance, during Hurricane Irma, many people downloaded and used Zello, a free app that turns smartphones into walkie-talkies or two-way radios for real-time communication.

But when it comes to the traditional approach of relying on physical emergency operations centers (EOC) to centralize and manage information, response efforts and recovery operations, more can and should be done to apply 21st century digital workplace solutions to the problems we face. The benefits of EOCs need to be extended to a far greater degree in the virtual world than they are today.

Emergency Management in the 21st Century

In any emergency, there are a multitude of inputs that need to be collected and analyzed, and points of resolution that can take months to close out. A combination of existing best practices and the right technology can dramatically improve the efficiency and effectiveness of emergency operations.

Here are a few aspects to consider:

  • Ubiquitous team access to centralized information: A single, consistent, and real-time view of emergency operations that can be accessed and updated by disparate responders and agencies would improve collaboration, reduce confusion and speed resolution.
  • Content in any format: When an emergency strikes, information flies fast and furious. No matter what format incoming content is in, it all needs to be captured, organized and potentially acted upon immediately. In addition to aggregating all of the information, data should be time-stamped to create a timeline of activities and to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks.
  • Interactivity: Resource management can be a big challenge for responders in the heat of the moment. A single and all-encompassing view of deployed and available resources would enable distributed teams to prioritize and respond appropriately. Real-time updates as new resources are added or as new teams prepare for deployment would speed response times.
  • The need to capture all information: Consider the challenges of reconciliation and reimbursement. Documenting all details as services are being dispatched would streamline and speed requests for reimbursement and reconciliation.
  • Ease of use: Emergency operations systems need to be as easy to operate as an iPad or an Amazon Echo, so that team members can focus all of their efforts on the response, not on figuring out how to use the technology.

Every disaster is unique. Outdated, one-size-fits-all approaches to emergency management must evolve with the times. In today’s hyperconnected world, we should be able to apply the benefits of connectivity, visualization and artificial intelligence to improve our responses to disasters and our efforts to provide relief to those who suffer.

We are good at technology. Now we have to shape technology for the greater good.