Technology Enabled Residents as Partners in Preparing for and Responding to Disasters

By Lyle Wray

Lyle Wray serves as Executive Director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments based in Hartford, Connecticut. He has served in state and local governments and as director of a nonpartisan think tank based in Minnesota.

We seem to be getting 100 year weather events every six months in New England over the past several years.

The good news is that we are getting better at planning for and responding to disasters. Two things have come out of the last two or three disasters that should be useful going forward — a more robust engagement of community residents in preparing for and responding to disasters and a deeper use of technology for better information flows between residents and various public safety actors.

Community Engagement

After a long history of “do it yourself” disaster recovery in former times, over the past few decades we have shifted to somewhat of a top down planning and response approach to disasters. While this “command and control” model may be appropriate for some circumstances, there is a realization that for many, if not most disasters, we need  a much better disaster game plan with a much more robust and engaged resident population with some widely available technology tools.

We do have in place communication tools for reaching out to residents during disasters. “Robocalls” from city officials on utility status and other important elements have become common. Websites are often used but provide only general information that is not in real time.

A new paradigm is growing that has a more robust engagement of community residents in preparing for and responding to disasters. Engaging residents in planning disasters can offer a number of advantages:

  • Validity of approach — residents can weigh in on what does and does not work
  • Legitimacy — by participating in the disaster planning and response process, residents “own” it to a greater degree
  • Reduce first responder initial load — when community residents do more to prepare for and respond to disasters in the short term, they allow first responders to focus on more dire circumstances
  • Better risk assessment and mitigation planning — More sets of eyes can help identify risks to be attended to and ways to manage those risks
  • Better assessment of on the ground status and better communication of what is happening on the ground — New communication tools, described below, can provide a richer picture of circumstances on the ground.

New Tools

Engaging residents as partners lead to the creation of the GetReadyCapitolRegion.org/ website that covers planning and preparing for disasters in the region around Hartford, CT. The site pays particular attention to those with special needs, children and elder and pets.  Outreach to get community members to look at the site has been successful. As major weather events approach, the use of  the site rises.

The key here is that to the extent that community residents can take care of their own needs for up to 72 hours in an event, they can allow better targeting of limited first responders to circumstances in greater need.

A second tool is a two way communication dashboard among residents and town officials during weather and other disasters. The Citizen Service Request Dashboard allows town members to see which streets are blocked by debris and which public buildings are open or closed. Equally important, it allows community residents to provide new information to the dashboard to keep it fresh and updated. The dashboard may be reached by smartphone — both to see maps of the community and to send updates to the town.

While this may seem a basic service, knowing which roads are passable and which buildings are open can be a valuable resource in responding to a disaster. The Capitol Region Council of Governments is looking to partner with South Windsor to scale up this application for much broader use in the state.

So why should we move toward more technology enabled residents as partners in disaster preparation and response? Bottom line: it helps us come up with better plans that have more buy-in from community residents. With low cost tools, we can leverage geographic information systems’ capabilities and the ubiquity of web access and smartphone use provides a much more up-to-date picture so that residents can better manage that first 72 hours after a disaster hits.

Discussion

Leave your comment below, or reply to others.

3 Comments

  1. Jessie Feller

    Lyle – thanks for this article. In Superstorm Sandy, did first responders find that the digital divide was a big issue in New York City among the low-income populations affected by the storm? These tools require smartphones and internet access/computers – items that low-income populations are less likely to own. Would love your thoughts on this.

    Reply
    • Lyle Wray

      The real issue what that the cell networks went down after a certain number of days. Some were using battery powered back up with limited life. Low income population up take of phones with web capacity has been accelerating dramatically. Unfortunately if the whole network is down, the digital divide is not the biggest problem. Second, a number of towns did not have resilient web capacity and were down as well. This will be addressed with a statewide broadband link under construction for greater redundancy for the next event.

      Reply
  2. Kim Barrington

    This is great progress. Last year I tried a crowdfunding experiment to raise money to create a citizen disaster response hub with very poor results. However, my aim was high. I wanted to begin by creating micro grids so there was some section in the city of St. Louis that would always be on. While people were interested, the goal of raising $55K may have been too ambitious as it also included creating a building to be grid free. Expensive but doable along with putting in a redunant wifi system within the city and the distribution then of an app along with it that citizens could fill in for their areas as to where water, bathroom, plugs for recharging, and emergency shelters were.

    The task is Herculean. I’ve since gone on to educate myself in disaster response and am going to be certified as a citizen emergency responder, but to galvanize a city or area that hasn’t yet been hit requires some doing. I’ll check out the website listed to see if this is a better place to start, but St. Louis appears apathetic even in the aftermath of so many close calls with tornadoes and Joplin, MO.

    At the least, I’ll be able to take care of myself.

    Reply

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