How to prepare for natural disasters

The federal government should use the latest technology to make information and lessons from previous disasters available to state and local responders nationwide, writes Keith Rhodes.

Keith Rhodes

Response efforts after recent major natural disasters have demonstrated that the federal government has learned a number of technology lessons from a decade’s worth of extreme weather events. Important considerations, such as continuity of operations and information sharing between key agencies and state governments, were key factors in managing and mitigating the effects of Hurricane Sandy.

However, despite the outstanding performance of federal, state and local government disaster response agencies and personnel, there is still much that can be done to streamline emergency management in the future.

One thing the government can do is use lessons learned from regional disasters to offer virtual emergency response exercises. Making disaster management experience from the Southeast and mid-Atlantic areas nationally accessible would help educate federal, state and local authorities about the effects of hurricanes on shorelines and other coastal issues.

For example, at the federal level, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida has a long-established set of procedures for dealing with storms. Hurricanes are tracked, and launch pads, spacecraft and payloads can be locked down if they are in the path of a storm. The key to translating this practice to local governments is giving them access to the latest disaster response procedures and information.

The practical role for the federal government is to serve as a clearinghouse for knowledge learned from recent hurricanes or other natural — or man-made — disasters. To accomplish that, however, federal agencies need to take advantage of available data warehousing and big-data tools to store, sift and analyze the necessary emergency response and mitigation procedures. That data is of a much more structured nature because it consists of a catalog of regional responses to disasters.

A database or database of databases containing detailed mitigation and management information would be a very useful tool for emergency response managers. It would support the federal government in its role to assist state and local agencies with better intelligence. Whether it’s about what equipment is needed, where it needs to be stationed or the availability of assets, the federal government should share its knowledge with emergency managers to help better position them to mitigate the effects of a natural disaster.

State and local emergency response agencies should continue to manage their own data in ways that best fit their specialties. Using virtualized environments for training and simulation, it is possible to build relationships between datasets in such a way that agencies at all levels of government can search for and access information and lessons learned from previous events in other regions.

Unfortunately, recent lessons sometimes fall outside the realm of information sharing between the federal government and states. After Hurricane Sandy and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, a number of bogus disaster relief and fraudulent fundraising websites cropped up asking for donations. Although those sites tend to target individuals, IT managers must be aware of them and alert their employees, which will help avoid situations in which an agency’s effectiveness is compromised because employees’ finances have been damaged by criminals or data has been compromised.

Like virtualized training to improve disaster management skills, the government must recognize the importance of training as a key component in avoiding disaster-related fraud — and preventing cyber disasters as well.

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