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IGF-USA 2012 Best Practice Forum: ICTs for Disaster Response – How the Internet is Transforming Emergency Management

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Brief session description:

Thursday, July 26, 2012 – Recent man-made and natural disasters around the globe have highlighted the importance of ICTs for connecting public safety officials, coordinating response operations and keeping citizens informed. Additionally, new and emerging Internet-based tools, mobile applications and social media have transformed disaster-relief efforts, providing real-time data for first responders and empowering citizens to access and share life-saving information and locate loved ones. Enhanced situational awareness via multiple platforms offers almost instantaneous and ubiquitous information regarding implications for life and property and individuals impacted by natural or man-made risks and threats. Internet-based communication is increasingly relied upon to support disaster preparation, response and recovery. Workshop participants looked at what must be done to ensure resilient infrastructures and continuity of operations, including keeping citizens informed. Panelists were invited to share their perspectives and the lessons learned from recent disasters and to work to identify recommendations for collaboration among stakeholders in preparing for future disasters.

Details of the session:

The moderator was Joe Burton, counselor for technology and security policy in the Communications and Information Policy Office of the US State Department. Panelists were:

  • Garland T. McCoy, founder and president of the Technology Education Institute
  • Kristin Peterson, CEO and co-founder of Inveneo, an organization that provides ICTs to remote areas
  • Keith Robertory, disaster response emergency communications manager for the American Red Cross
  • Veronique Pluviose-Fenton, a congressional staffer who focuses on homeland security and disaster response
  • Tom Sullivan, chief of staff of the Federal Communications Commission

Véronique Pluviose-Fenton speaks at a workshop on ICTS for Disaster Response at IGF-USA in Washington, D.C. on July 26, 2012.

Last month, severe storms in the Northern Virginia/Washington, D.C., metro area not only knocked out Internet service, but also caused an outage of 911 Emergency Response telephone services that lasted four days.

The Best Practice Forum at IGF-USA Thursday at Georgetown Law Center featured a discussion between government and NGO representatives on how to address this type of scenario and best coordinate disaster response in the current technological era.

According to Garland McCoy, founder of the Technology Education Institute, the 911 outage highlights the flaws of the current IP-backed telephone system, which evolved from the analog, hard-wired telephone system.

“Back in the twisted copper-wire days, the power could go out but your phone would stay on,” McCoy said. But the IP phone system now has ”hub and spoke” architecture with a single point of failure, known as a Big Data facility.

Véronique Pluviose-Fenton, a congressional staffer who focuses on homeland security and disaster response, spoke on the failures of the communication system following major catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Pluviose-Fenton emphasized the importance of interoperability—the ability of networked communications systems to communicate with each other.

“We all watched live what happens when they (first responders) couldn’t communicate,” she said, referencing the chaos of the 2001 attacks on the United States, when police officers and fire fighters could not talk or relay warnings.

Keith Robertory, disaster services technology manager for the American Red Cross, said it’s possible to build an entirely interoperable network, but there are quite a few political roadblocks standing in the way. “Can you imagine if the New York police chief and fire chief are trying to agree who owns a shared network and who controls it?” Robertory asked, illustrating the difficulty of interconnectivity.

Pluviose-Fenton agreed, saying, “I still fundamentally feel that even with the advances in technology, there still is a problem with will.”

This is not just a domestic issue, as disasters in foreign countries have also put communication technology to the test. US agencies and NGOs often join the global-assistance efforts when disaster strikes elsewhere.

Kristin Peterson, CEO of Inveneo (a non-profit focused on ICTs in the developing world), discussed her role in establishing a wireless network in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake that destroyed nearly all existing communication systems in the island nation. Every aid group providing relief had its own network, from the American Red Cross to the US military.

“Within 24 hours we knew we had to put up a WiFi network,” Peterson said.

The task took several days but was a necessary step in orchestrating the global response in aiding Haitian refugees, from providing food and water to distributing shoes sent by singer Jessica Simpson.

“If you can’t communicate, you can’t coordinate your response,” Peterson said.

Tom Sullivan speaks at a workshop on ICTS for Disaster Response at IGF-USA in Washington, D.C. on July 26, 2012.

The task took several days but was a necessary step in orchestrating the global response for food and water to shoes sent by singer Jessica Simpson.

“If you can’t communicate, you can’t coordinate your response,” Peterson said.

Tom Sullivan, chief of staff of the US Federal Communications Commission, said that even Japan, a country with an extremely sophisticated communications system and other cutting-edge technology, had to depend on a backup power grid following the 2011 earthquake.

He said it is necessary for the United States to develop a strong contingency communications plan in order to be prepared for the inevitable arrival of yet another Katrina-esque catastrophe or any devastating emergency situation. Robertory elaborated on this need. He supervises American Red Cross efforts to establish emergency communications infrastructures when providing relief to victims of disasters.

He and Sullivan also emphasized the importance of citizen engagement in a field where first-response is not and never will be 100-percent reliable.

“If 911 services were bad, wouldn’t you be more likely to learn first aid and CPR?” Robertory asked. He explained that citizens should form their own personal contingency plans should communication fail in the aftermath of a disaster.

All of the panelists agreed that advances in technology provide both new opportunities and new challenges for those responsible for disaster relief.

— Brennan McGovern

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Internet Governance Forum-USA, 2011 Best Practices Forum ICTs for Disaster Response: Transforming Emergency Management

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Brief description:

Responders are driving innovative uses of ICTs to transform emergency planning, intermediation and management. The Internet and social networking are being harnessed by search and rescue teams to locate and bring vital support to victims. ICTs are reassuring loved ones, bringing help to the stranded, raising financial aid, managing communications for responders and supporting rebuilding. This workshop explored the role communications, Internet and Internet-based applications play in disaster response and recovery operations and steps that can be taken to ensure continuity of operations following a disaster. It also considered the connection between disaster preparedness and Internet governance.

Details of the session:

Information and communication technologies are connecting public safety officials, allowing the efficient coordination of response operations and keeping citizens informed in new ways every day. Responders are driving innovative uses of ICTs to transform emergency planning, intermediation and management.

The Internet and social networking are being harnessed by search and rescue teams to locate and bring vital support to victims. The new Internet-based tools, mobile applications and social media that are transforming disaster relief efforts and empowering citizens were the focus of this workshop at the IGF-USA conference July 18 in Washington, D.C.

This session was moderated by Kelly O’Keefe, director of the Washington office of Access Partnership, a consultancy in international telecommunications trade, regulation and licensing. O’Keefe has a global knowledge base in the topic as she is also a rapporteur for an International Telecommunication Union study group on emergency communications.

The session’s panelists included:

  • Joe Burton, counselor for technology and security policy, Communications and Information Policy, U.S. State Department
  • Jim Bugel, assistant vice president for public safety and homeland security for AT&T
  • Corbin Fields, Sparkrelief, a non-profit Internet-based organization empowering communities to provide disaster relief, http://sparkrelief.org/#
  • Roland A. LaPlante, senior vice president and chief marketing officer, Afilias
  • Keith Robertory, manager, disaster services technology, American Red Cross
  • Tim Woods, technical leader, Cisco Systems

Kelly O’Keefe started the discussion by referring to recent global disasters, from the earthquake in Haiti to the earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan.  These events have demonstrated the importance not only for disaster response, but for relief communication, especially for developing countries, she said.

The biggest trend in disaster communication has been the migration toward Internet-based communications, said Tim Woods of Cisco.  The influence and increased use of technology has become more widespread, and increasingly people turn to the Internet, particularly social media, to receive updates on events.  Social media, in particular, allow users to send updates to followers immediately in real time.

But despite the widespread prevalence of technology and response services across the globe, the United States does not have the authority to simply step in and start setting up an information system in any country experiencing a disaster.  There are differences when responding to a disaster in another country that aren’t problems in the United States.

When the Red Cross responded to the earthquake in Haiti, Keith Robertory said, “We didn’t just say, ‘Hey, let’s get our suntan lotion and see what’s happening.’”

In addition to disseminating information to the public, the Red Cross had a responsibility to talk to the Haitian government and coordinate their needs among Red Cross organizations from other nations.

During such coordination efforts, U.S. organizations cannot make the same kinds of assumptions that they would usually make at home.  There are differences in technology cultures that must be taken into account when setting up a communications network during a disaster, said Robertory, of the American Red Cross.

Communicating during an emergency

There should be an interest in the swift restoration of communications infrastructures to save lives in a country experiencing a natural disaster, Joe Burton said.  There is a global trend toward catastrophic disasters.  In recent history, with the rise of the Internet and social networks, the Internet and text messaging are efficient uses of communications networks.

In terms of the big picture, there are more people with a basic phone, even a lower-end version, than there are who own PCs and TVs combined, said Vance Hedderel, of Afilias.  This bigger picture allows disaster response communications to understand how to reach people.  At this point in time, the phone is more effective than the Internet.  SMS data reach larger numbers of people.

Additionally, the goal of disaster communications should be to inform people experiencing the disaster first-hand.  “

A major gap currently exists where those people aren’t getting the necessary information and the outside world seems to know much more,” Hedderel said.  “Those issues become so paramount when there is little infrastructure in place.”

When sending out information over the Internet, Robertory said it is critical to hit all social media sites.  Since the emphasis is on getting information to the largest number of people possible, the disaster response teams have to reach their audiences across many platforms.

Establishing a network

From the service provider’s perspective, there is an emphasis on critical infrastructure during and after a catastrophic event, Woods said.  The networks to be used for information sharing should be reliant and resilient to disruption.  A capacity plan needs to be in place to handle an emergency.  What often happens is that networks become oversaturated immediately after a disaster, with users attempting to assure others of their safety or provide updates to the state of those affected.

Robertory likened establishing network capacity to a gym membership: “You hope that not everyone comes in to use the treadmills on the same day at the same time,” he said.

Although being able to handle the enlarged capacity that happens after a disaster event is important, a network is not sustainable if preparation for overcapacity becomes slow and expensive.  The goal is a balance of capitalism and altruism, life-saving and economy, to make money with the most efficient use of resources possible.

Despite the importance of developing effectively working technology systems, these will be largely useless if various agencies involved cannot work together.  Part of preparation is building relationships between agencies and determining who will communicate with whom.

“If you can build those relationships ahead of time, you have a better chance of getting through when disaster strikes,” Burton said.

Another side to preparedness involves having technology that works even in smaller situations, Robertory said.  Attempting to prepare a system for a big event from the start leaves too much room for errors when such a situation actually occurs.  If the system works for everyday emergencies, it allows time to test it and improve it for smaller upcoming events.

“It’s about being proactive, not reactive,” said Corbin Fields, of Sparkrelief.

– Carolyn VanBrocklin