El Niño Imparts IT Lessons for Emergencies

El Niño Imparts IT Lessons for Emergencies

By John Makulowich
Senior Writer

Robert Baum,
president of Techflow Inc.
In the aftermath of the most recent El Niño storms and floods, emergency management teams are revisiting the role of information technology in helping make cleanup and rehabilitation more efficient and effective.

Among them is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, South Pacific Division (SPD) Emergency Operations Center in Los Angeles. As noted on its Web page (www.spd.usace.army.mil/eochmpge.html), SPD is no stranger to disaster management. In the past 25 years, it has serviced 47 presidential disaster declarations.

The division, which includes Albuquerque, N.M., San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento, Calif., has dealt with the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, the 1994 Northridge Earthquake and the major El Niño floods of 1995, 1997 and 1998.

But this time around, the division is using technology to coordinate activities and allow key command posts to monitor cleanup and rehabilitation of levies, roads and bridges. Among the key tools are four Lotus Notes databases and World Wide Web browsers.

Jim Crum, chief of the emergency management branch of the corps' Los Angeles district, led his operation's conversion from a largely paper-based system to a digital one. He said his office is the first in the corps to leverage customized database design with the Internet.

"Prior to El Niño, we had a paper-based system. But as emergency management was becoming more and more prominent within our customers' counties, their expectations about our ability to manage information were quite high. We also realized the need during a crisis to quickly provide information in a more succinct and graphical way," Crum said.

With experience as a shift leader in emergency management for both the Northridge earthquake and previous El Niño floods, Crum realized that teams in the Emergency Operations Center could spend their time more wisely by making decisions rather than managing paper.

"Maintaining a log of incoming traffic, documenting incoming calls, tracking personnel, tracking events, all these basic functions needed to be automated. If that were done, we felt the managers could spend more time anticipating and managing the event rather than reacting in a crisis mode," Crum said.

For assistance, he turned to Techflow Inc., an IT solutions shop focused on Lotus Notes and Domino. Robert Baum, president, founded the Solano Beach, Calif.-based company in 1995.

"Given the office's requirement to report to other agencies as well as to district headquarters, we decided to leverage Lotus Notes and Domino by making key information available over the Web," Baum said. "Along with that, we helped them create four databases that covered everything from logging events and sharing information locally to funding and how specific amounts were expensed."

Among the four databases, the message log was the backbone. The second database tracked emergency missions and actions, for example, 15 in Northridge and eight for El Niño, which amounted to $3.5 million. These involved such activities as technical assistance to the county or a city and repairing a facility.

"The traditional way the [Emergency Operations Center] worked was to put the information on a big board so everyone could see it. But more people needed the information outside the EOC. So we posted it to the database and put it on the Web," Baum said.

The database included daily information about who asked for assistance and what kind. For example, Crum said, during the El Niño floods in February, an embankment that was within 8 feet of a sewage plant was eroding. It could have released raw sewage into the Santa Clara River if it had failed. Using the automated system, which was completed just before El Niño hit, he was able to award a contract to shore up the embankment within 24 hours and keep track of it. The system also allowed any interested party connected with the corps to see the status of the event.

The third database was called the Emergency Cadre and included anyone trained or experienced in the corps office, their pay level, home phone and past experience, among other data.

The fourth database had the names of those working on the event. This database was used to track labor costs, injuries, awards and personnel location.

Among the lessons Crum learned in implementing the system: Do not bite off more than you can chew. In this case, he said, it was trying to avoid automating everything at once.

"We wanted to manage all traffic, that is, voice, face-to-face, e-mail and fax, in a data entry, automated way where it could be quickly summarized and posted and where the teams could respond to all interested parties at once," he said. "What we did was take a paper form as a model and make it as simple as possible. That was the second lesson: Make sure you have mandatory fields to ensure quality input for all the forms."

The mandatory fields they created -several of which were completed by the computer - included the name of the event; whether it was general information or what is called a tasker, or task that required attention and completion; the person who called; the information source, such as phone, letter or fax; who took the message; the date and time stamp; a subject and the message. All of this was composed in rich text field, which allowed images, sounds and straight ASCII text.

As a result of the automation, paperwork dropped off by about 80 percent, according to Crum.

Another valuable lesson was to create the databases with hot buttons that a staff person could use to perform critical functions, such as creating a new message or requesting help.

"We decided early on that we did not want to use the Lotus Notes menu. Given that we planned one-hour training for users, we wanted to give them the message that they did not need to know Lotus Notes to use the databases," Crum said.

A final lesson was to hire a contractor that has the latest information about the tools they planned to use.

Baum's understanding of Lotus and Domino let them put the information on the Web. Thus, all the personnel needed to monitor the event was knowledge of how to use a browser.

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