Last week we worked with the City of New Haven, Connecticut, to prepare for and respond to Superstorm Sandy. This post is Part 2 in a series in which we discuss our experiences and what we learned as we helped New Haven through this crisis. General questions require specific answers.
As the winds start to howl, the water threatens its banks, and thick-trunked trees begin to sway and buckle, the first questions being asked in the EOC are necessarily general. Do we have any trees down? Are there any reports of downed wires? Have the harbor or rivers broken their banks anywhere?
But as the situation progresses, simple answers don’t suffice – quick, specific, and highly detailed responses are required. Once the reports of a fallen tree come in, the information has to be assessed and compared against other data coming in at the same time. And in order to mount a successful response, the initial question of “Do we have any trees down” needs to be answered with many, many points of data (Where is the tree? Are there any casualties? Is it blocking a road? How busy is the road where it’s located? Has it taken down any wires? And so on).
Can’t predict the future, Can adapt to the present
Unfortunately, due to the very nature of disasters and other emergencies, every contingency can’t be planned for, and what information you’ll need to collect as a situation evolves can’t be predicted. Good design and set-up based on experience, drills, and common sense can take care of a lot of the uncertainty in a system designed to gather and relay information about a changing situation. But there is always the chance that everything will not have been accounted for.
So what happens when you realize a few hours before the storm’s arrival that you’ll need to include flood response and measurements in all of your call reports, where before taking in information about floods was a totally separate form? What do you do when you need to find out how far the floodwaters have risen in a neighborhood where severe flooding hasn’t happened since 1938?
Flexible, on-the-fly set-up and modification
A response system needs to have the flexibility to allow administrators and users with training & permissions to modify the system quickly and on the fly to accommodate the highly dynamic nature of emergency data-gathering. In other words, you shouldn’t have to engage an IT team to develop or change code on your system in order to make it work better during a critical situation. Rather, a flexible and robust platform should allow its users to make those sorts of changes themselves quickly and easily, through simple interfaces and changes that take effect immediately.
One of the notable benefits of Veoci was that as conditions changed and demands evolved for the data points and kinds of information needed by the various teams in the EOC and the Mayor, we were able to modify forms, task inputs, and selection options, and any number of other data entry points on the fly, from the front end, without code changes, and maintaining data integrity. Even little things – like being able to very quickly add clarifying instructions and help hints for the dispatchers filling out forms as they received calls – without any back-end changes, were vital to smooth and efficient operations.
Ultimately, as situations develop and response efforts become more complex, it’s important to have a system that can simultaneously take in data, act as a communication bridge for everyone in the EOC, and manage response actions while being eminently adaptable to the changing needs of the responders.