IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

How Cloud Computing Can Benefit Disaster Response

For emergency management, cloud computing’s biggest advantage can be summed up in three words: virtual mission continuity.

EM_shutterstock_cloud computing_thumb
Image via Shutterstock
As technology continues to redefine emergency management practices, the process of incorporating new concepts into daily practice and planning can be confusing. This is especially true if the concept sounds mysterious and cryptic — cloud computing often sounds complex
and bewildering.

The truth isn’t nearly that exciting. Cloud computing is more like regressing to the early days of network design. The “cloud” in cloud computing was the symbol network engineers used to illustrate unknown domains and large networks of servers located elsewhere. Using the power of other computers somewhere on the Internet — that’s what cloud computing is all about.

“Cloud computing is just hosted computer services,” said Pascal Schuback, a program coordinator for the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management. “It is simply using the power of other computers on the Internet.”

Emergency managers use a cloud every day without thinking twice to: check email, collaborate with applications like SharePoint, access social and professional networks, watch videos on YouTube, or use almost anything from Google.

Cloud computing is not new. What is new is how it’s being applied. What it can do for emergency management is make the job a lot easier.

Nick Crossley, manager of emergency management and mission continuity for the University of California, Davis, uses Microsoft SharePoint as a collaborative planning tool for events on campus. “I can set up discussion boards, share documents or resource lists,” he said. “I can control access to it, and all the players in any event or incident can access it anytime, from anywhere, on or off campus.”

Commercial incident management software is also in the cloud. “We used WebEOC as a cloud for communication and emergency response between all the local, regional and state emergency management,” said Daryl Spiewak, former emergency, safety and compliance manager for the Brazos River Authority in Waco, Texas.

The Advantages

Like everything else, there are pros and cons to delivering services via cloud computing.

One big advantage is the cost. The individual user needs only a terminal/monitor/modem with some limited local storage and access to the Internet. Commercial software packages vanish in favor of subscriptions to the programs or services needed. The agency doesn’t need a room full of servers, and IT departments shrink because the data center doesn’t exist.

The end-user experience is certainly less complicated. Compatibility problems decrease, because software updates are always current. Dependability increases because services are maintained and available remotely 24/7, no more waiting for desktop support. Profiles remain consistent across all devices, and “intelligent assistants” (think Siri) can customize needed information.

There is a growing niche market for specific industries. A service from Clio lets lawyers manage their practice and communication with clients from the cloud. Oxford University in England maintains a service to give academic researchers a space for long-term retention of their research data. Autodesk has cloud-based tools for designers. The Electronic Medical Records initiative replaces doctors’ charts with terminals that allow them to keep track of medical treatments regardless of a patient’s physical location.

Now the Downside

As idyllic as it all sounds, there are concerns about migrating to cloud computing, like bandwidth. Think of bandwidth as the Interstate Highway System. The roadway is the network; the wider the roadway, the more cars (or data) can travel along it; more roadways (networks) mean more options for cars (and data) to get from one place to another. We have the interstate; we don’t have the city streets. The downside is that public infrastructure — physical or virtual — isn’t a high priority in the U.S. these days.

Another concern is maintaining connections to a cloud. If the link is severed because of a power outage, software crash, or an earthquake or hurricane taking out the local infrastructure, and the Internet can’t be accessed, neither can the data or applications stored there. Case in point being the Microsoft Azure cloud service failure on Feb. 29 that left customers worldwide without access for several hours to several days. This problem is easier to solve: The answer is collaborating clouds. Just like there are failover procedures in data centers, there will be failover clouds.

Security is one of the chief roadblocks to implementing cloud computing systems, certainly for government agencies or any agency receiving federal funding. Some of that may be resolved with the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP), which will provide a standardized cloud certification process across the federal government and is set to be launched in June. It is hoped that FedRAMP can address some of the more frustrating complications. For example, Los Angeles excluded its law enforcement departments from the city’s new Google cloud-based email system, because of claims that the company couldn’t comply with the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services policies.

Thin notebooks with Internet access can be taken anywhere, used anywhere and because they don’t contain much data, can provide a level of security that doesn’t exist today. Cloud computing would end the stories about laptops with classified or unencrypted information being stolen, like the ones that were taken from NASA last year that contained command and control codes for the International Space Station.

Regardless, the biggest issue for deployment is simply selling people on the concept. There are IT techs, agencies and ordinary people unwilling to move data and applications to some remote location they can’t see or touch. Whether it’s a concern about privacy, distrust or just plain stubbornness, keeping files and programs in a cloud requires a shift in mindset — like the one that pushed the widespread adoption of the Internet. And that might take some time.

Virtual Mission Continuity

For emergency management, cloud computing’s biggest advantage can be summed up in three words: virtual mission continuity.

Cloud computing reduces concerns about whether the data center will survive a disaster. Businesses and agencies are good at copying and backing up data, but the real challenge is restoring the applications to keep essential services and critical functions online. Entire servers, including systems, applications and data can be copied, backed up and be ready to activate in another data center in a matter of minutes.

Employees can be sent to a location that has Internet access and it is all still there — accurate as of the moment the disaster happened. Writing most of the devolution section of a continuity of operations plan — how the agency will transfer essential functions and responsibilities to personnel at a different office or location (and back) — becomes a no-brainer. The best part is that cloud computing is equally available to a small agency or mom-and-pop business as it to big ones.

“One of the significant benefits of using the cloud is that you can distribute your personnel,” said Gavin Treadgold, former director of the Kestrel Group, a risk, continuity and emergency management consultant group. “It makes it quite a bit easier to have remote personnel contributing without the logistical overhead of bringing them into a disaster zone.”

Another mission continuity solution is telecommuting. “The cloud is also helpful when your team, which is normally in a single building, is spread around residential homes or suburban offices,” Treadgold added.

Applications and data house in a cloud enable employees to work from remote locations. It removes the burden of running applications on a home computer, permits virtual collaboration of documents and allows real-time communication via instant messaging or programs like Skype.

And isn’t it a short jump from that to a virtual EOC? As universal broadband access becomes commoner, an activated EOC can be established in minutes and operated from multiple remote locations simultaneously. It maintains the flexibility and scalability inherent in incident management systems, and makes it easier to send and receive data or visual feeds from the field.

Emergency managers pride themselves on being flexible and resourceful. Cloud computing is a tool that can enhance the primary mission of ensuring that communities survive disasters. It offers increased access to resources and faster response.

“The cloud is going to change the whole mentality of emergency management,” Schuback said. “Responders can be anyone with connectivity, the public included. We can regionalize our capabilities and create virtual operation support teams composed of the people able to support an event, and it doesn’t matter where they are.”

Valerie Lucus-McEwen is a certified emergency manager and certified business continuity professional. She also writes the Disaster Academia blog for Emergency Management at www.


Valerie Lucus-McEwen is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.