[Photo: An aerial view of a house in Gilchrist, Texas, that survived the destruction of Hurricane Ike in September 2008. Courtesy of Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA.]
Natural disasters are becoming more frequent, growing more severe and affecting more people than ever before. The reasons vary but include climate change, population growth and shifting habitation patterns. According to a statement released from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters and the United Nations in January 2009, the average number of natural disasters reported each year increased more than 60 percent from 2003 to 2005, compared with 1996 to 1998. The Worldwatch Institute reported that in 2007 alone there were 874 weather-related disasters worldwide, a 13 percent increase over 2006 and the highest number since systematic record keeping began in 1974.
As a result, developing the tools, processes and best practices to manage natural disasters more effectively is becoming an increasingly urgent global priority. Effective disaster management or disaster response can be defined as providing the technology, tools and practices that enable disaster response organizations to systematically manage information from multiple sources and collaborate effectively to assist survivors, mitigate damage and help communities rebuild.
Identify the Problems
Before organizations can improve their disaster response capabilities with new technology and training, they must have a clear idea of the problems they are trying to solve and have processes and practices in place to address the problems. Ongoing challenges in disaster management — such as cross-border issues when disasters affect more than one country, or the need to normalize data so that critical information can be quickly communicated, understood and acted upon — reinforce the need for such clarity and structure.
Another challenge to the effectiveness of disaster management and recovery is sharing information across organizations hampered by a lack of interoperability. In a disaster management situation, information is widely distributed and owned by different organizations, critical data is maintained in disparate systems that often don’t interoperate well, and there are no common standards to enable organizations to efficiently organize and share their resources during response operations. To complicate matters, disaster management teams may be dealing with a badly damaged infrastructure making information sharing nearly impossible.
Another fundamental challenge is the need to automate manual records for disaster response and humanitarian assistance organizations, which is just as important as, if somewhat less glamorous than, other critical issues affecting their readiness. True interoperability is about connecting people, data and diverse processes and organizations, which requires not only flexible technology and accepted standards, but also the fewest possible bureaucratic and regulatory barriers.
In many countries, the people and organizations that work in disaster management also have responsibilities related to national security. The processes and technology solutions they use for critical infrastructure protection can also be adapted for disaster management. These responders increasingly rely on information and communications technology (ICT) systems that can streamline knowledge sharing, situational analysis and optimize collaboration among organizations. ICT can help reduce the loss of life and property, reunite families and alleviate human suffering by providing first responders with the tools for effective communication and collaboration to overcome challenges posed by distance, diverse languages, cultural differences, geographic barriers, international borders and damaged infrastructure.
Organizations that are engaged in disaster management need technology solutions that will enable them to provide lifesaving response and recovery assistance to the people who need their help when disasters strike. Increasingly disaster management organizations look for applications that are industry-proven, robust, cost-effective, interoperable and, in some cases, able to operate with limited or intermittent connectivity and various levels of network capacity. When considering disaster management solutions, it’s important to look for the following capabilities and benefits:
- Optimized situational awareness. Real-time communication, data management and data transmission deliver a full picture of the situation.
- Interoperable, collaborative environment. Responders save lives by improving information flow across all types of boundaries.
- Support for mobile, Web-based access across a range of devices. All components and people are connected in fixed and field locations.
- System security and reliability. A combination of powerful security and performance.
- Comprehensive system manageability. All facets of the solution are designed to work together.
Change occurs rapidly in disaster management. Mandatory policies and procedures frequently require the modification of existing systems. The ability to rapidly adapt applications to keep pace with evolving situations benefits response organizations, and the people who depend on them, while preserving their IT investments.
Using Technology to Improve Disaster Management Capabilities
Disaster response organizations must systematically manage information from multiple sources and collaborate effectively to assist survivors, mitigate damage and help communities rebuild. A growing number of these responders and governments around the world increasingly rely on ICT systems that can streamline knowledge sharing, situational analysis and collaboration.
Response organizations are using ICT to predict and prepare for natural disasters in an effort to prevent them from becoming large-scale human tragedies. For example, disaster management officials are improving their situational awareness by using GIS and geospatial imaging technology to track hurricanes, analyze data, and create models that enable them to predict the storm’s destructive force and test different response scenarios. They can then use communications and collaboration technology to coordinate massive evacuations and other strategies, and to move people out of harm’s way before the hurricane hits.