In sailing-ship days, it took three months or more to send a message from the United States to New Zealand. Today, those countries are only a mouse click away, as the citizens of Chicago and Christchurch gratefully found out when both major cities were hit hard, and almost simultaneously, by weather disasters of colossal magnitude.
During a large-scale disaster, crisis communications are critical to ensuring a fast and effective response, rescue, and recovery operation. In today’s age of frequent advances in technology, organizations and individual volunteers are leveraging social media as a particularly efficient vehicle to connect those in need with those who can help. Volunteer crisis-response organizations around the globe are already acting as the conduits to connect vulnerable populations in the wake of natural or man-made disasters.
Volunteers from around the world work “virtually” together for countless hours on crisis responses and exercises. These online “virtual” teams are formed to help improve crisis communications globally. For example, in February 2011, the Midwest area (including Chicago, Illinois) of the United States was battling a relentless blizzard (nicknamed #snOMG on Twitter). Because local emergency services were overwhelmed, volunteers from CrisisCommons (a global community of volunteers who build and use technology tools to help respond to disasters and improve resiliency and response to a crisis) and Humanity Road (a nonprofit organization – headquartered in Boydton, Virginia – of volunteers who help educate the public with critical recovery information before, during, and after a catastrophic disaster) worked online with the Chicago Tribune. Together they were able to: (a) Read reports submitted to a “crowd map” created, in effect, by local residents; (b) Triage the information developed; and (c) Forward that information to local Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) that respond to high-risk incidents.
Most of the people affected by the blizzard needed only a few simple items – shovels, for example. The key to an effective response was to connect those who already possessed shovels (and/or the other items needed) with those who needed them. By facilitating that effort, the online response teams empowered members of the community to help one another. Similarly, urgent health-related messages – involving wellness checks, for example, and/or the need for transportation to local hospitals for people requiring medical procedures – were relayed to CERT members to provide assistance.
Polar Opposites (Almost) – Only a Mouse-Click Away
Coincidentally, as the onsite and online volunteers were helping those battered by the Chicago snowstorm, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake hit Christchurch, New Zealand – 8,500 miles away. A different type of shovel team was suddenly born: the Student Volunteer Army of Christchurch, New Zealand, whose motto was aptly crafted as, “We dig CHCH. You should too.”
#CHCH is the short term, or “hashtag,” used in Twitter to identify tweets that pertain to Christchurch, New Zealand. By using an online crisis map to prioritize their response, the Christchurch students helped to move mountains of debris into safe off-road locations and to help in numerous other ways. The online support provided by creating the crisis map and assisting the community’s professional responders in many other ways helped to disseminate information faster, enabling the professionals as well as the volunteers to respond more quickly, and more effectively, to the many cries for help.
Catherine Graham, Vice President of Humanity Road, summarized in one sentence what happened in the two simultaneous events: “We had two large active events in progress and literally at both ends of the world.” In a large-scale event, she continued, “This kind of digital volunteer support is key to improving the disaster response chain of care. When done effectively, digital volunteer systems help local populations by fostering a neighbor-helping-neighbor system, reducing demands on local emergency services, providing a portal to help guide the public to solutions, and helping to speed the recovery process – all with just a click of a mouse.”
RIMPAC & Pacific Endeavor – Planning for Future Crises
Planning for and participating in exercises that include the use of new communications techniques such as social media and crisis mapping is already an important step forward in reducing the steep learning curve typical of most traditional disaster response operations. Additional advances already are being made – this year, for example, in the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) multinational military exercise that started on 10 July and is scheduled to end on 1 August. For the first time in the history of RIMPAC, held in the sea and airspace in and around the Hawaiian Islands, a Humanitarian Aid/Disaster Response (HA/DR) event, running from 15 July to 21 July, was included in the exercises.
The growing process will continue next month, when a multinational communications interoperability exercise, codenamed Pacific Endeavor, will be hosted by Singapore and carried out in cooperation with the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM). The aim of that exercise is to enhance interoperability between participating nations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the international humanitarian community to enable greater collaboration on communication systems in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.
Establishing common operational datasets for the transportability of key disaster information is important for improving recovery efforts and mitigating losses. Through the use of technology and digital volunteers, these exercises will help improve the processes used for sharing data among the many response organizations likely to be involved. By assisting in the creation and population of data on crisis maps – filtering, categorizing, and geo-locating incidents – organizations such as Humanity Road are responding to modern disaster situations with the most modern means of communication now available.
For additional information on:
The Student Volunteer Army in Christchurch, visit http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/news/christchurch-earthquake-2011/6774917/Student-army-wins-Anzac-award
Humanity Road, visit http://www.humanityroad.org/
Christine Thompson is President and co-founder of Humanity Road Inc., a U.S.-based Public Charity global disaster response organization. A seasoned leader and entrepreneur whose first career was in the communications industry, she also is an experienced Red Cross volunteer who has merged her professional skills and disaster response experience to improve public communications. A member of the Department of Homeland Security Virtual Social Media Working Group, she is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at industry forums. She is also active in her Southern Virginia local community Emergency Planning Committee and local fire department auxiliary.