The First Problem with WebEOC Is Us

As we (I) point the finger at WebEOC, there are three pointing back at me.

Tom Cox, who is what I consider an ICS expert with emergency management bones, wrote back to me about my recent blog posting, Use of WebEOC is Insanity Defined. Have you filled out the WebEOC Survey I shared there? Please do and send it to others who use or have used it. 

Here's what Tom had to say [with some editing to protect the innocent and the guilty].

"I am grinning at your WebEOC comments. Emergency computer software has been the bane of our existence. We spend more time feeding the computer than dealing with the disaster.  

But, like almost every problem in emergency management, we are looking for a simple solution to a complex problem. Government is both technology adverse and cost adverse. The reluctance to bring in new technology has been a problem identified right from the start of ICS with FIRESCOPE. The three original pillars started with ICS, and then intended to move on to MACS and finally increasing the use of technology to improve response. The money ran out after ICS and the latter two never got off the ground. 

Government never wants to use the “latest and greatest” because it may have glitches, security flaws, or not meet their needs. 

WebEOC [and other information management systems] suffer from one fundamental flaw:

  • We don’t know what we need.
This is due to a number of factors:

  • Each disaster has different requirements
  • Much of the need is translating emergency/disaster needs into routine business unit language, assignment and processes
  • Those who write the software have never been to a disaster.
  • Those who use the software don’t know what it could do.
  • There are too many bells and whistles and features and tricks to make it user friendly.
  • There are too few bells and whistles, features, and tricks to make it truly useful.
  • Much of the information needs to go to organizations external to government
  • When information goes to external organizations, it is misused, released publicly, and is misunderstood.
  • Applications are sold to “make things easy.” They are bought with that belief.
  • New systems require extensive training, practice, computer skills, and review/analysis/reflection on how it is/should be used during a disaster.    
  • Rather than “make things easy,” new systems add considerable maintenance and refresh requirements that the purchaser always underestimates and tries do accomplish with the absolute minimum of time, cost and effort.
My gut feel is that 80% of the capabilities of these systems is not used because either people don’t understand what the system can do, or that the system has “bells and whistles” capabilities that are rarely (if ever) needed.

We also often have duplication of mapping, tracking, documentation, and information flow as the systems that are meant to make things easy actually duplicate existing systems. Hence, resource requests in WebEOC have to be re-entered in company or government order systems, GIS mapping is being done (better) by GIS specialists in the Planning Section, the Incident Management Team, and the town office.

The software sales people will offer you something that will solve all your problems. Perhaps. But they don’t tell you, because they don’t know themselves, what problems the new system will create for you and your organization. That is for you to figure out for yourself.

Everyone is looking for a perfect solution. You are only going to get some of what you need. But nobody discusses what they are willing to do without. They are unable to identify the new problems it will create. And at the very heart of it, we still suffer that one fundamental flaw: We don’t know what we need."

Please complete the WebEOC Survey 

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.
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