Stephenson: Power to the people

Two more things forgotten in disaster preparation and response: You and me

The Hurricane Katrina experience showed that officials must treat citizens as partners in disaster prevention and response, not as victims to be ordered around in emergencies.

A poll by ABC News shows that people are ready for that role. Since Katrina, only 26 percent of the people

surveyed said they believe the government is ready to respond to a terrorist attack, and 40 percent now have disaster communication plans for their families, compared with 26 percent who had such plans before Katrina hit.

The seeds of this partnership are sprouting. Some people cobbled together temporary solutions using any communication device that still functioned to connect with friends and relatives in the aftermath of Katrina.

The spontaneous creation of the KatrinaHelp.info Web site early in the crisis was particularly noteworthy. The wiki uses collaborative software so anyone can add content. By contrast to the rarely updated federal, state and local government Web sites, volunteers constantly revised it. It's still the most comprehensive information source for those affected by Katrina.

Isn't it risky letting anyone contribute? Yes, but people can monitor the wiki for accuracy and remove erroneous or malicious content. After comparing KatrinaHelp.info to its woeful government counterparts, I think people would agree the risk is worth it.

What if a disaster wipes out an area's communications infrastructure, as was the case with cellular towers along the Gulf Coast? A solution was in the Homeland Security Department's backyard, though most officials did not know about it. The DC Emergency Radio Network (DCERN) is an all-volunteer, self-organized communications network that uses cheap, battery-powered walkie-talkies.

With DCERN as a model, authorities could have delivered walkie-talkies and basic instructions to people on New Orleans rooftops, creating a simple, effective, instant communications system.

Empowering people is the logical convergence of three important trends.

  • As military guru John Arquilla said of terrorists, networked enemies require networked responses.

  • Most of us carry increasingly powerful personal communications devices, and agencies can't control how we use them. The newest technology can create self-organizing, self-healing networks, even if a disaster destroys fixed infrastructures.

  • The science of "emergent" behavior is producing a higher level of effective collaboration than any individual effort can achieve, especially in unpredictable situations such as disasters. KatrinaHelp.info is a perfect example

Centralized government emergency communication systems risk obsolescence and are vulnerable to failure in emergencies, which are the worst times for people to learn how to use them. Instead, government should create and promote "cookbooks" with a range of citizen-controlled communications options that preferably capitalize on familiar commercial applications for the growing range of personal communication devices, such as camera phones and cars with OnStar. With minimal guidance, people can collaborate to create solutions based on the situation.

If the government doesn't create such a framework, Katrina proved that we'll take matters into our own hands.

Stephenson is principal of Stephenson Strategies, a homeland security firm in Medfield, Mass. His blog on the subject can be found at stephensonstrategies.com.

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