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Oct 22 2010

The Promise and Challenge of Crisis Tech Response Volunteers: Part II

By Bob Greenberg

Topics: Information SharingRecoveryResponse

In Part I of this blog, I talked about the incredibly valuable role that technology volunteers have played in responding to crises such as the Haiti Earthquake, the San Bruno Fires, and others. Along with the major contributions that these volunteers are making to help increase the capacity of the official response organizations, their active role is also surfacing significant, and in some cases, long-standing issues that need to be addressed to improve disaster preparedness and response overall. I’ve already covered one of the most important of these issues, the need to create a more structured and institutional relationship between the official response organizations and the volunteer communities, in the first blog. In this blog, I will look at other important issues that were raised by the participants in the International Conference of Crisis Mappers Conference (ICCM) earlier this month.

Preparedness and Planning

“Governments just don’t put money into planning.” This sentiment was expressed time and again by disaster response officials. Unfortunately it is more true than not. No matter how good the technology and no matter how good the tool, unless it is fully integrated and exercised as part of the policies and procedures in an agency’s concept of operations, it will be of minimal use in responding during an actual disaster. The reality is that during a disaster, responders use the tools that they use every day and are most familiar with. During a disaster they rarely have the time to use something new. They simply don’t have the time to learn how to use it. While many organizations and companies mean well by volunteering the use of a new technology or tool during a disaster, they can at times actually get in the way.

It is not just a matter of learning how to use a new tool. Employing a new tool also requires a support system to go along with it, which is not immediately available. Moreover, the use of a new tool can create heightened expectations from the public who will anticipate an immediate response from the responding organizations. It is telling that in a survey by the American Red Cross, 74% of the public stated that they would expect help to arrive within an hour if they posted a request for help on a social media web site.

Planning for Resilience

Another issue raised by the participants of the ICCM – and one that continues to vex response organizations – is maintaining vigilance and interest in pre-disaster situations. In order to be truly prepared, it is critical to engage both the official response organizations and the public they serve. While it is difficult to maintain support and resources for preparedness planning, it is equally as difficult to maintain the interest of the public at large. It is unfortunately the case that despite efforts by response organizations at every level to engage the public, few have been very successful at doing so. This is an issue that FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has raised time and again.

One approach that might have more success is to integrate preparedness planning into the broader efforts to build vibrant and resilient communities. If citizens are actively engaged in working together to strengthen their community economically, culturally, socially and politically – something important to their day-to-day lives – they can also improve their ability to respond in times of crisis. Why? Because the actual first responder in a time of crisis is most often not an official responder but a neighbor. If you have already built strong ties and relationships with your neighbors, that will go a long way towards improving preparedness. And it improves even more if official response organizations are part of the equation.

All of this points to the critical importance of focusing preparedness efforts on building resilient communities, something which will be addressed in subsequent blogs.

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