Parkes: In emergencies, data needs to be everywhere

When a disaster strikes, emergency responders should try every means available to them to share critical information, the Energy Department’s chief information officer said yesterday.

After Hurricane Katrina disabled gasoline supplies to refineries, Energy employees assisted emergency workers in restoring that supply, said Rose Parkes, CIO at the department. But there were several challenges.

One of the first was to locate generators. Energy personnel did that by calling people when phones were available or meeting them in person. Another problem was that electronic devices ran out of power and could not be charged because many areas in the Gulf Coast had no electricity. As a way of sharing information, she said, the department supplied satellite phones to several employees, who, at a particular time of day, would communicate with one another about situation reports and where resources were needed.

“So when all else fails, use phone, use face, use voice,” she said during an information-sharing forum sponsored by Input. “And, quite frankly, it worked.”

Parkes, who previously served as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s CIO, said Energy also used Global Positioning System satellite technology to locate crews working on pipeline repairs. Their coordinates would be relayed to other emergency workers on the ground, who could then provide the crews with blankets, water and food.

In talking with several Energy employees who were assisting in the recovery efforts, Parkes said she learned several lessons. First, information sharing should be done by any means possible, “from smoke signals to satellite phones,” as one colleague told her. Also, when there’s no power, there is no information technology, so there also has to be a Plan B that doesn't rely on IT.

Finally, she said the employees told her that common sense overrides policies, procedures and rules.

Parkes said that FEMA would likely look at the lessons learned from Katrina and lead a federal effort to improve how emergency response works when no electrical infrastructure and communications are available.

But, she said, every incident is different and what works well in one case may not work at all the next time.

The department provides emergency support functions to FEMA.

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