Mastering Disasters: Groupware Under Pressure

When the Northridge earthquake hit the Los Angeles area in 1994, emergency response personnel found their disaster recovery plans needed some updating

by / August 31, 1995
Sept 95 Level of Govt: Local, State

Function: Emergency Response

Problem/Situation: Emergency Response Centers are vital in times of disaster, but are often ill-equipped for handling such emergencies

Solution: The use of groupware can often ease communications between agencies in a disaster, allowing them to focus on the tasks at hand

Jurisdiction: Los Angeles, Calif

Vendors: Lotus, MultiMation Inc., VSP Associates

Contact: Los Angeles Police Department Sergeant Rob Gandy, 213/847-1653

By David Aden Contributing Writer

6:30 a.m.: An earthquake hits Los Angeles. The epicenter is somewhere near the Port of Los Angeles. At least one building is reported collapsed and several fires have broken out. Fire personnel, police, building inspectors, the Red Cross, the Mayor's office and other municipal and state agencies need to be informed. Personnel deployments need to be monitored

6:45 a.m.: Information starts to come in from rescue workers on site. The situation, while bad, is not as grim as originally feared. Firemen are bringing the worst of the fires under control. Additional rescue personnel will be needed soon to dig out several small, apparently empty, structures that collapsed. A water main has ruptured and is flooding one local street. Water commission engineers need to be dispatched to get the situation under control. Extra police are needed to control traffic on a nearby thoroughfare where the traffic lights are out and rush hour is beginning. 7:15 a.m.: Rescue workers have confirmed no one was caught in the collapsed structures. The street flooding has been stopped, but 500 households and several businesses are without water. A plan for a temporary solution has been proposed by the engineer on site. Building inspectors have begun to report in on damage to local bridges and public facilities. One bridge has been closed. A new traffic pattern needs to be worked out and posted with signs and personnel. Seismographic information has come in from several agencies. The Red Cross has asked for an okay to occupy the local high school gym. The Mayor's office is calling for an updated report on the extent of the damage, and the rescue and containment actions, for a press briefing in five minutes

Although the above scenario is fictional, there is a key element of truth in it: disasters of any type or size require thorough, quick and effective coordination between numerous local, state and federal agencies. The effectiveness of that coordination directly affects how well a business, city, state or nation responds to the emergency. Good coordination saves lives

EMERGENCY OPERATIONS CENTERS Most large cities and many businesses have a designated Emergency Operations Center (EOC). This may be as simple as a conference room with extra phone and power lines, or as sophisticated as a dedicated building specifically designed as a command center for use in disaster situations

Whatever the form, the EOC serves as the focal point for disaster response and recovery

Prior to the Los Angeles Northridge earthquake, the Los Angeles EOC was poorly equipped. According to Bob Olson, president of VSP Associates Inc., a consulting firm brought in to evaluate Los Angeles' EOC in 1991, Los Angeles "had an EOC probably outfitted in the late 60s or early 70s that served primarily as the police department [disaster] center. The equipment was old and the internal operations were an old manual system. The map displays were hard to maintain and hard to see - they were posted with grease pencils," he said

VSP suggested three alternatives to the city, ranging from minimal improvements of the existing space to construction of an entirely new facility. The city took the middle course by opting to make major improvements to the existing EOC. The floorspace was completely reorganized, new workstations were designed and specially constructed, the lighting and air conditioning were improved and additional, - and separate - EOCs were set up for the police and fire departments. At the heart of the changes, however, was the installation of an internal PC-network based messaging system using Lotus Notes. "There are some systems out there that are very sophisticated and expensive," Olson said. "We [suggested] what is practical, what is affordable, and what would do what they need for the near term. This was relatively low budget, but still substantial." According to Los Angeles Police Department Sergeant Rob Gandy, prior to the introduction of the Notes system, department representatives would enter the EOC room, turn on the lights and fill out paper forms describing the incident. Requests for assistance were written, then routed to the representative of the appropriate agency. "We were typing the messages into a word processor, but that was the extent of the automation," Gandy said. "They weren't sorted by department, only by date and time." In order to find a particular piece of information, someone had to go through all the forms. To reconstruct what actions had been taken after the fact, the paper needed to be sorted, then summarized. After the Northridge earthquake, private donations to Los Angeles Mayor Riordan's Earthquake Relief Fund enabled the city to accelerate work on VSP's upgrade recommendations. The private donations made capital investments possible and the EOC went from a handful of old computers to about 80. BUILDING THE MESSAGING SYSTEM Gandy has worked with Michael Posin of MultiMation Inc., a private company that specializes in Lotus Notes applications to develop the applications needed by the EOC. Gandy knew what applications were needed; MutliMation's job was to work out how to get Notes to do it. What resulted was a complete messaging system that links representatives of all the agencies, departments and non-government support organizations that participate in disaster relief and recovery. "Each person representing [a department or function] has their own set up and their own kind of reports for the kind of people and actions they have in their department," said Posin. "There are checklists of what they are supposed to do. Users key in what's called an EOC message. Everything is keyword driven; they key in one letter and the whole field is filled in. A number is assigned to the message and a priority, and we have a table of incident locations which is built dynamically. In a matter of seconds you can generate a message." As soon as the message is complete, the user clicks on the send button and the message is routed. Messages can be addressed to specific departments, or to groups of affected departments."All of a sudden, everyone knows what is going on," said Posin

Because Notes supports a variety of data formats, Gandy and Posin have incorporated mapping technology. When the location of an incident is entered into an EOC message, a background process adds the information to a map that can be attached to a message. The maps help to quickly update EOC members as to the extent of the disaster and who is already on site. Right now, the network is largely confined to the EOC itself, but an experimental remote site has been set up and Gandy is planning to have connected terminals in police and fire stations, American Red Cross headquarters, the Mayor's office and other key locations. "We're even thinking it could be done with a laptop computer and a cellular phone and portable printer," Gandy said. "Field people could then put data into the system." DESIGNING THE SYSTEM Another advantage of Notes is the ability of different departments to design discipline-specific forms. For example, the Building Department will be able to put their request forms into Notes, which will then send them to the field office responsible for filling the request. Because training is a determining factor in overall EOC efficiency, Gandy has a regular schedule of staff training. Nonetheless, it is not unusual for someone to show up other than the person who was trained, so Gandy and Posin have written "cheat sheets" which explain basic system use in several pages

Between the "cheat sheets" and the intuitive nature of the system's GUI interface, Gandy has found that users are able to get productive with the system very quickly. Once the emergency is over, there still remains the task of evaluating the EOC's performance. Online access to all the EOC messages generated during the crisis will ease this task as well

The newest features include an electronic bulletin board to replace the white board formerly used to post up-to-the-minute information on developing emergencies. Also, important phone numbers are now kept online, rather than as hard-copy lists previously distributed annually

Although disaster and emergency handling always requires coordination, no two disasters are alike. Agency involvement depends on the circumstances and can change from minute to minute. By providing a flexible structure in which agencies can work and by automating the process of communication and coordination between agencies, attention can be taken off the "how-to's" of communicating, and the hassles of tracking stray pieces of paper, and put onto the task at hand: saving lives

-----------Technicals----------- The EOC's network is Novell-based with Token Ring topology. Server and power backups help to proof it against emergencies. According to Posin, plans are in progress to outfit a mobile EOC van. The mobile unit would have a Notes server onboard and cellular phone connections to outlying areas

David Aden
David Aden is a writer from Washington, D.C.