A Vanguard Response Systems technician demonstrates a chemical bomb after simulated disarming by the company's robot. Photo by Blake Harris.

Given the changing face of disaster management, are we really prepared? That was the fundamental question addressed by the 14th World Conference on Disaster Management held in Toronto, June 20-23, attended by over 1,300 delegates from the U.S., Canada and overseas.

Predictably, speaker after speaker from both the public and private sector answered that question in much the same way. "Of course we are better prepared than we were, but there is still much much more to do to meet the challenges of a post-9/11 world."

Like most things, when it comes to preparedness, the devil is in the details. And those details span a broad array of threats and dangers that make preparedness an ever more complex issue involving foresight, organization, communication, cooperation, private-public partnerships, and of course running through all of these -- technology.

The prominence of technology in disaster readiness was clearly illustrated through the accompanying trade show, which, as one might expect, featured mainly technology products. Vendor displays included bomb-disposal robots, emergency hospital camp facilities and biological safe tents as well as disaster management and GIS emergency-coordination software.

Two high points that livened up the conference were elaborate demonstrations of emergency response. Vanguard Response Systems' remote-controlled robot took a chemical bomb off a bus and disarmed it. And Toronto fire fighters demonstrated how they would decontaminate citizens exposed to dangerous chemicals such as might be found in a terrorist attack.

In a simulated chemical terrorist attack exercise, a Toronto firefighter checks for chemical contamination after decontamination has been complete. Photo by Blake Harris.

Yet the presentations that seemed to make have the most lasting impact among attendees were keynote speakers who spelled out not just the necessity for better preparedness for all types of disaster, but also better approaches to assess risk, develop resources and then respond to and manage disasters when they do occur.

Disaster management is a field where best practices are avidly devoured. Professionals clearly recognize that there are new lessons to be learned from all the major disasters. Examining each in detail offers insights on how to better prepare for the next one. But in this there are liabilities. Karl Hofmann, executive secretary of the State Department and special assistant to the Secretary of State asked one important question: "Are we preparing for the next disaster simply by reliving the last one? Or are we thinking ahead?"

The implication was that in all likelihood, the next disaster, whether natural or man-made, would be different. And only preparing for disasters based on what has happened in the past could severely limit the ability to effectively respond to a new and very different event, whether that is a terrorist attack or a natural catastrophe.

What also was made abundantly clear is that there is indisputably a role for IT in disaster readiness. And while the most sophisticated satellite mobile communication systems for disaster response command posts might be wonderful, IT can also help to ensure better emergency coordination at very little cost. One example is Seattle's Emergency Management program, which has established and tested the Business Emergency Network (BEN) that uses e-mail to provide emergency information to businesses and to coordinate needed citizen responses.

At virtually no additional expense to the city, businesses no longer have to rely on the media for disaster information which is

Blake Harris  |  Contributing Editor