When Jobs Collide

CIOs and IT departments may have larger roles to play when dealing with disaster management.

by / August 11, 2004
The 14th World Conference on Disaster Management held in Toronto this June wasn't the type of event to draw public CIOs. In fact, chances are it didn't appear on the radars of most involved in government IT.

Given the role information technology plays in most government efforts to predict, prepare for and effectively respond to crises and disasters -- everything from terrorist attacks to natural disasters -- the absence of public CIOs is something to think about. Perhaps their role has yet to fully evolve for a post-9/11 world.

Technology is an essential part of virtually all disaster readiness and management. Illustrating this point was the conference's accompanying trade show, which was well populated with vendors pitching a range of technological products beyond bomb disposal robots, and emergency pop-up medical and decontamination facilities. The IT area contained crisis management software, secure data backup, GIS-based disaster management and emergency satellite communication systems, among others.

However, an understanding of where we are in our disaster management thinking -- and where we must go -- brings home the point that perhaps CIOs and IT departments have a bigger role to play, one that is not adequately defined in many jurisdictions.

The challenges in disaster readiness and response are immense given today's political, social and economic realities. This is augmented by organizational and perceptional challenges, said Peter Power, former Scotland Yard terrorist expert and current crisis management adviser with Visor Consultants in London. "Crisis management frequently tends to deal only with what has happened, not with what is about to happen."

Or as Karl Hofmann, special assistant to the U.S. secretary and executive secretary of state, asked, "Are we preparing for the next disaster simply by reliving the last one? Or are we thinking ahead?"

Not only was that question at the forefront of U.S. State Department concerns, it was also the conference's general theme. And while there's still discussion about connecting silos for effective preparedness and response, planning for different or unexpected disasters now looms large in the minds of emergency response professionals.

Effective planning and preparation starts with ensuring the right people are involved -- something the State Department experience perhaps best illuminates.

State Department Lessons
"Whether we are speaking of natural disasters, such as the recent floods in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, or the earthquake in Iraq, or if we are speaking about man-made disasters such as Sept. 11, none of us has the luxury of treating them as my problem or your problem," said Hofmann. "They are all our problem."

The threat environment governments face today -- the disaster and crisis management landscape -- includes political instability overseas, humanitarian disasters and terrorist threats. Risks also include the possibility of failed states and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, as well as the struggle over ideas, Hoffman said. "We have the tools and strategies to deal with some of these, but certainly not all of them," he said. "And yet we have to move aggressively against all of these risks.

"Planning for disaster and crisis management, and exercising those plans, is all very well and good," he added. "But how do we in the U.S. government go about mitigating those risks ahead of time? Are we organized to include nontraditional and nonstate actors fully in our disaster and crisis planning, exercising and thinking? We've done a lot of this, but I think we have much more to do."

In particular, Hofmann discussed the need to involve nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in all planning phases. "No government or group of governments can effectively respond these days to a major disaster without the assistance of nongovernmental organizations," he said. "NGOs are key partners whether governments like it or not."

Somalia in 1994 is an example that makes the case for including NGOs. The Marine Corps General in charge of withdrawing U.S. and U.N. troops realized early that his operation wasn't going to succeed without close coordination with NGO representatives on the ground, and made them part of his planning by seeking their input and advice.

"We have faced the same challenges in Iraq, where NGOs have a significant role in helping Iraqis bring about the very transition in Iraq that we seek," said Hofmann. "Planning and coordinating with NGOs is, or should be, part of any standard response plan or operational scenario that any government contemplates up to, including armed conflict."

Hofmann also said new capabilities provided by information management tools allow disaster managers to influence events in ways that weren't possible a few years ago. Enhanced satellite imagery, for instance, can assist crisis and disaster response, whether it is imagery of the earthquake in Bam, Iran, the evacuation routes in C
Blake Harris Contributing Editor