Can We Help You?

Ohio service agency builds database to quickly locate people with special needs during a disaster.

by / July 9, 2004
After the World Trade Center attacks in September 2001, many pets fared better than people trapped in their homes in the evacuated area. According to an issue brief published by the International Longevity Center-USA (ILC-USA), volunteers began retrieving animals from apartments in that part of Lower Manhattan within 24 hours. "At the same time," wrote Nora O'Brien, ILC-USA's director of partnerships, "abandoned older and disabled people waited for up to seven days for an ad hoc medical team to rescue them."

When board members and staff at the Ohio Heartland Community Action Commission (OHCAC) read that report, they got an idea for a local homeland security project. The study indicated the need to track seniors and other residents who might need extra help in an emergency, said Howard Snow, a volunteer for AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), who works with the OHCAC's Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP).

New York lacked a comprehensive information source detailing which residents relied on Meals on Wheels, and which needed medicine, oxygen or help from nursing aides. Safety and health officials didn't know where they were, Snow said. 'Nobody went out and knocked on doors."

The OHCAC's four-county service area also lacked this information. Agency officials asked Snow and another VISTA volunteer (who has since left the program) to develop a way to find residents with special needs in the event of a disaster. The result is the Homeland Individual Locator System (HILS).

Health, Hazards, Heat
HILS is designed to give emergency responders the data needed to aid residents during man-made or natural disasters. The database stores personal information, such as health conditions, major medications, other people living in the household, pets in the home that might threaten emergency personnel, entrance locations, the type of fuel used for heating, and names and phone numbers of emergency contacts. It also links each residence to its county, township, school district, police jurisdiction and other geographic entities.

Although the project particularly targets senior citizens, anyone can enroll in the database. People provide information by completing surveys, in English or Spanish, on paper or online.

The OHCAC, a private, not-for-profit organization, serves Crawford, Marion, Morrow and Richland counties. So far, the agency has distributed surveys in Marion and Crawford, but plans to extend efforts to other parts of the state. It is also marketing HILS to agencies across the United States, said Brenda Tharp, RSVP director for the Marion and Crawford bicounty program. The OHCAC launched the HILS project in April 2003. Residents started completing surveys in the fall, and as of early January, the database held information on about 250 residents, mainly in Marion County.

One unusual aspect of the project is its shoestring budget. VISTA workers receive a stipend through AmeriCorps VISTA. The OHCAC helps other volunteers with extra costs, Tharp said. To print pamphlets advertising the program, she said she pays a local trade school with money she can "beg, borrow and barter."

Philip Richardson, the OHCAC's management information administrator, used Microsoft Access to develop an early version of HILS. But after talking with local public safety personnel, officials at the OHCAC decided they could potentially put the system to work for communities across the country. Access can't hold enough records for a nationwide application, he said.

Price is Attractive
To develop a more robust and fully secured version of the system, Kerry Fetherolf, owner of Canton Webworks in Canton, Ohio, was hired. He built it in MySQL, a freeware database management system. "The price is attractive," he said. The system is also extremely robust and portable, and can be made highly secure, he added.

Fetherolf was beta testing the system in January and expected to have it fully operational by spring. Users will access HILS through the Web, and agencies might have a direct dial-in option, he said. An encrypted, password-protected version of the system will be available to first responders on a portable drive, which users can plug into a mobile computer's USB port.

People in the database will be able to view and update their records over the Web, and residents can request periodic reminders to keep their listings current, Fetherolf said.

Local agencies will also use the system to enter data from hard-copy surveys, and to make sure data entered online is valid. Finally HILS staff will access the system for administrative purposes.

To give HILS a geographic interface, Fetherolf is using Microsoft's MapPoint software. "We can generate a clickable link that will pull up a map with the specific addresses being queried, literally pinpointed on the map," he said. In the long term, HILS will probably support interfaces with other commonly used mapping programs as well, so public safety agencies with their own GIS software can use it to display HILS data, he said.

The map interface would allow officers, for example, to draw a line around an area where a blizzard closed down roads, Richardson said. The system would display information on all people in that area. "Then they could call those people and make sure they're OK, or send someone to get them."

Child Needs Oxygen, Dog Doesn't Bite
Selecting one person from the map display, a safety officer could learn that "Annie Smith is 22, and she has a handicapped child in the home who needs oxygen," Tharp said. "And there is a rottweiler that is extremely playful." A service agency employee would contact Ms. Smith and send help if needed.

Service agencies that want to use HILS in other communities will conduct their own surveys, do their own data entry and pay a subscription fee to the OHCAC, Richardson said. "We only ask that other agencies pitch in and help us pay for the bandwidth and that kind of thing," he said. Public safety agencies will use the system free of charge.

John Butterworth, sheriff of Marion County, said he hadn't seen a fully functioning version of HILS, but had seen the raw data and understood the system's potential. "Data is power, and the power to effectuate a rescue scenario more quickly is the goal of every public safety organization," he said.

Along with speed, HILS could help first responders gain efficiency, Butterworth added. "Obviously you're putting your resources into the situation as the incident progresses," he said. By the time emergency workers hear about a person in trouble, they may already have committed all their resources elsewhere. If rescuers know ahead of time which people in which areas might need help, they can do some advance planning and attend to them in a logical order.

If HILS had been up and running last summer, when a giant power failure blacked out much of the Northeast, it might have averted some confusion in the OHCAC's service area. During the blackout, people who relied on electric-powered oxygen systems flooded the local emergency room, Richardson said. Radio stations broadcast a telephone number people could call to find out where else to get help, "but if they didn't have power, they didn't hear it," he said. "This system, if it had been in place at the time, could have pulled up those people who needed oxygen. They could have been contacted so they knew where to go."

The emergency operating center could have targeted individuals who rely on city power for a number of different applications, Butterworth said. "We would have been able to access the data quickly, identify those people and move care to them much faster than we were able to do at the time."
Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer
Platforms & Programs