Groupware Speeds Emergency Measures

After years of grappling with manual systems, California's Office of Emergency Services has launched a statewide groupware and messaging system that officials say will save hundreds or thousands of lives and millions of dollars in the next major natural disaster.

It's an old joke: What are the four seasons in California? Fires, floods, earthquakes and mud slides.

But it's no laughing matter for the state's disaster response services and the 33 million residents they support. California leads the nation in numbers of natural disasters, which can put tremendous strain on government systems designed to dispatch emergency resources to those in need.

After years of grappling with manual methods, the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (OES)-responsible for state-level planning, response and recovery-successfully launched a statewide computer system before reaching the logistical breaking point.

"Even though the old system had a lot to be optimized, California still managed to handle the disasters [it] had," said John Bowles, chief information officer of OES in Sacramento. "But if we really had a big [disaster], the old way would have just totally disintegrated."

Based on Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes groupware and messaging platform, the new client/server system has radically improved communications, slashing emergency response times by as much as 75 percent. Although difficult to quantify, Bowles says the system has helped save many lives and dollars in the process and will save hundreds or thousands of lives and millions of dollars in the next major disaster.

Also, OES exploits the system for day-to-day administrative functions. For example, the agency can now easily track expenses, automate contract processing and quickly generate the necessary after-disaster reports.

Called the Response Information Management System (RIMS), the Notes network has handled more than 50 minor disasters since December 1995 as well as 1997's New Year's Flood, an effort involving 48 counties. It is fully deployed at OES' State Operations Center and three Regional Emergency Operations Centers, with varying levels of deployment at 58 county operational areas, 24 state agencies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) office in San Francisco.

But there's still plenty to do to reap its maximum benefits. Up next is the continued expansion of RIMS at the county and city levels. This effort will include overcoming a smattering of resistance from agencies that have adopted other, sometimes incompatible, systems. Another challenge is increasing user proficiency. On the drawing board are enhancements such as access to simulation tools and links to third-party emergency-response products.

The Problem

Take 13 major disasters in the past seven years, mix in budget cuts, and you have a recipe for operational disaster. That was the scenario OES faced unless it improved its efficiency. During emergencies, myriad resource requests would come in by phone and fax, often resulting in a backlog of requests, misdirection of resources, duplication of efforts and serious lag times in status reports. Finally, in March 1995, it was time to do more than think about automation.

"When I came in to do the technology study, I believe there had been a total of five studies over a 12-year period, all of which ended up as shelfware," said Bowles, who at the time was an outside contractor. "Nothing whatsoever had been done."

That changed in quick order. By the end of June 1995, OES selected Notes. The agency was impressed with Notes-based solutions at the Los Angeles Emergency Operations Center and at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Sacramento. Nonetheless, OES evaluated nine alternatives, including enhancements to the manual system; emergency management packages from EIS International Corp. and SoftRisk Technologies Inc.; development of custom applications within a Microsoft Corp. environment; and three defense contractor solutions.

The defense contractor approach would have cost some $10 million and taken several years to deliver. Custom applications were nixed due to development costs. And the emergency management packages had plenty of functions, but they didn't match OES' needs.

Notes won out based on its functionality and cost. It was simple to use and develop in, and it had the underlying communications infrastructure to link and synchronize servers statewide

-something the others lacked. And it was inexpensive. "Some of the systems we looked at were between $1,000 and $5,000 per workstation," said Troy Armstrong, OES' chief of operations. "We ended up paying $85 per workstation for Notes." In the end, RIMS was developed in 18 months for less than $500,000.

The Funding Process

Even with the price differential, there were hurdles to clear. "Considering the cost, it was amazing," Bowles said. His 60-page feasibility study finally was approved after it doubled in size. "It's a bit excessive. I thought it would have well justified a $20 million project.

"It's very difficult to justify public-safety-type service improvements because the system is set up to justify on the basis of cost/benefit," he added. "But it was so inexpensive that we were able to do it just by savings in emergency overtime."

Bowles gauged those savings at $619,000, assuming two moderate disasters per year. "I'm not saying we necessarily achieved those costs," he said. "We may have kept an extra one or two people on, but now they are doing advance planning, so [they're] improving service."

OES also had to overcome skepticism that a $500,000 solution-using software with little history in the government-could tackle a supposed $10 million problem, Armstrong added. "It was very difficult because Notes was a very obscure program, from a government standpoint," he said. "We had a lot of trouble at first finding people to program in it because the agencies that did use it wouldn't let any of their people go. Then we found we could teach ourselves."

The Notes Solution

After approval, OES turned to the Lotus Notes partner that worked on the L.A. city system, and together they came up with the initial application in about 10 days, Bowles said. He felt comfortable enough with Notes after that short period to do the rest of the development in-house.

Because Notes is a Rapid Application Development and Joint Application Development tool, "basically, as fast as you can define a requirement, you can actually program it in Notes," he added.

OES used California's Standardized Emergency Management System organizational framework and slapped Notes on top of it. Notes automates two major functions: coordinating resource requests during a disaster, and collecting and disseminating information during and after a disaster. Now, when a city or county requests a resource, OES can respond within minutes instead of hours or days. "Just by the nature of Notes' replication and workflow architecture, it's geared [toward] rapidly disseminating a lot of information and moving critical requests and statuses around the system," Armstrong said.

For example, in the past, the National Guard could be on the phone all day coordinating requests and trying to get a mission's status. Now everything is entered into Notes, and the National Guard has a RIMS server that stays in sync with OES, so both groups are always on the same page.

"It probably cuts the time better than in half," said Capt. Rick Rabe, with the National Guard in Sacramento. The Guard then fills out status reports in RIMS for all users of the system to see, "saving them from having to call us up and check the status of all these missions."

Another vivid example: the New Year's Flood of 1995 vs. 1997. "I started work here a few days before the flooding started [in 1995], and when I walked through the door of the state operations center, I was just bombarded by paper, faxes, phone messages and sticky notes," Armstrong said. "It was no way to run a disaster."

Compare that with last January's flood: Sonoma County typed in a situation report detailing critical problems, such as bridges threatened by floating debris. In the past, that report would have taken hours to disseminate. But with Notes' server replication, "the minute they typed that in, everybody connected to the system saw that report," Armstrong said. "It was very good at giving everyone early notification of where the problems were and what type of assistance was going to be required."

RIMS also prioritizes requests, helping avoid overdeployment and misdirected resources. In the past, if a helicopter was on a fact-finding tour for legislators, emergency workers knew only that it was unavailable. Now, if a flash request comes in about someone standing in a flood, about to drown on top of a car, OES knows what the helicopter is being used for and can redirect it to the rescue.

OES also embedded a PC-based geographic information system engine in Notes. This engine is used to map all the levies in the central valley-something that will be of great use in the next flood.

With Notes tracking every aspect of disaster coordination, OES can better monitor its performance to improve response in the next disaster. "We can focus in on areas where we think we are slow or weak," Armstrong said. "We can see how long it took us to fill a request or to prepare and disseminate a report."

Fiscal tracking also has been a boon. "Without any kind of automation, it was virtually impossible for OES to know how much [we] had spent on any one thing or determine how much more we would need," Bowles said. "With the Notes-based administrative system, we're able to tell in real time exactly where we are on the budget." For example, 75 percent of OES' response costs are reimbursable from FEMA. But without a way to track and document those costs in the past, reimbursements were late or even missed.

"Within a week of a disaster, we can give a report to both the legislature and FEMA on exactly what that disaster cost," Bowles said. "In the past, it took six months, minimum."

The Future

Still to come is the rollout to the last eight of the 58 counties and the cities within them. While all agencies that are adopting RIMS can gain entry from a Notes client, as the system grows, counties will have to install servers because OES will have difficulty handling the dial-in load.

Some agencies already have invested in their own automation. A few decided to drop their systems and adopt RIMS. But for those reluctant to install RIMS, OES is working to link to their systems.

Even with Notes' ease of use, keeping users proficient is a challenge. It can be weeks or months between disasters, making it easy to forget how RIMS works. OES is starting monthly tests in which counties call in practice requests to keep everyone fresh.

Ease of applications development has its downside too. "Because it's so easy to create and modify applications, we sometimes start to get ahead of the end user," Armstrong said. "We've had to slow down our whole application development and let the state catch up."

Slowed But Not Shelved

OES is still working on hooks to simulation programs to help predict the effects of disasters.

"That's probably one of the greatest future benefits," Bowles said. "If you get a big earthquake, it's going to be hours before people at the local level can even climb out from underneath the rubble. Using modeling tools, within a half-hour OES can [assess]-with 80 percent accuracy-exactly what happened, so by the time the locals are just getting themselves going, we can have resources on the way."

Jane Morrissey is a free-lance writer based in Denver.

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