The havoc that Hurricane Katrina wreaked on the Gulf Coast this summer brought national attention to the myriad challenges of coordinating local, state, federal, nonprofit and private disaster recovery efforts.
Florida, the state that has known more hurricanes on a first-name basis than all other states combined, is all too familiar with the challenges these disasters present.
Consider last years devastating hurricane season, in which Florida was battered by four major hurricanes within a six-week period.
In its aftermath, the Florida Division of Emergency Management, which spearheads the states disaster preparedness and recovery efforts, decided it needed to improve the way information was collected and shared among the different entities involved in emergency relief efforts.
FDEM wanted to provide a clear, common operating picture for its staff and partner network, which includes nearly 70 county-level organizations as well as hundreds of state, federal, nonprofit and private organizations during emergencies, to ensure that it allocated the right resources to the right areas at the right time.
With the help of Groove Networks Inc., the peer-to-peer collaboration software company founded by Lotus Notes creator Ray Ozzie and recently acquired by Microsoft Corp., and Grooves partner, systems integrator CH2M Hill, FDEM last spring started implementing a collaborative emergency management system based on Groove Virtual Office software and services.
FDEM Director Craig Fugate said he had been following the development of Grooves software with keen interest since 2001. “I first saw it as a tool to enhance conference calls, but the early versions werent there yet,” said Fugate in Tallahassee.
Conference calls may be an easy task for many businesses, but coordinating a disaster plan across the entire state of Florida can include hundreds of representatives on a single phone call. Conducting roll call alone among these parties was laborious, and there was no easy way for the parties to share mission-critical data such as charts and maps, Fugate said.
“By 2003, I had run some experiments with Groove, but before we could get it implemented, we had the 2004 hurricanes,” he said. “When youre going in with that kind of situation, you need proven things people are used to, so we had to put Groove on the back burner.”
“After the storms, we did after-action reports, and one of the biggest complaints was a lack of a common operating picture,” Fugate said.
That was when Fugate turned to Groove, of Beverly, Mass., to implement Groove Virtual Office, P2P desktop collaboration software that lets users share information in work spaces. In turn, Groove recruited Denver-based CH2M Hill to come on board. (“CH2M” is derived from the initials of the companys founders; “Hill” comes from the name of the company it merged with.)
Instead of rolling out Groove Virtual Office in its full capacity at the outset, FDEM decided to take a grass-roots approach. “We decided to take the virus approach and infect users with a new product,” Fugate said.
Groove and CH2M Hill spent eight weeks in Tallahassee with FDEM and spoke to local, county and state officials to understand how all the agencies operate and work together.
During the next several months, the team developed a prototype of the emergency management system based on Groove Virtual Office software and services, said Greg Quirk, vice president of channels for CH2M Hills Communication and Information Solutions Group.
CH2M Hill helped FDEM develop a collaborative emergency management application using the Groove Forms tool, according to Quirk. The application, EM Constellation, supports incident management and information gathering and sharing among state and county groups during disaster response.
“We built an application with CH2M Hill that allowed us to put information in forms with information from the counties, so we didnt have to read individual messages,” Fugate said. “We created a heading for each county, with a color code, allowing us to quickly see that information and to make sure that everyone is seeing the same thing.”
For example, color codes are used to mark whether counties have water pressure or whether they have sufficient water pressure for firefighting but not water that is safe to drink.
This enables FDEM to quickly assess where it needs to deploy resources. “I can look at 40 counties to see if were making progress. I dont need to read a bunch of situation reports,” Fugate said.
Challenges of Swift, Broad
The projects quick deployment and massive scale were the biggest challenges, according to Groove and CH2M Hill officials.
“It was a little more aggressive than we would have liked,” Quirk said. “While we were thrilled that theyre using it, there were occasional technical problems, and we would have been able to deal with them better if we had an extra couple months.”
David Waldrop, manager of the public-sector segment at Groove, agreed. “Time was the biggest challenge. Everyone rushed because of the timing of their hurricane season,” Waldrop said. “We wish we could have started earlier and coordinated with the counties a little more to get them better trained and enabled.”
Fugate, however, said he was not discouraged by the early hurdles. “Any time you roll out something like this, youre going to have training issues [and] equipment issues,” he said.
FDEM gave the tools one of their first major tests in this years hurricane training exercise in Florida.
“We wanted to expose people to it in a safe environment, but in a similar way to what a hurricane is actually like, so that when we got into hurricane season, we knew areas of concern,” Fugate said.
That strategy paid off, with staff better prepared to tackle the real thing. During Hurricane Katrina, Fugate said, FDEM stepped in to help Mississippi with its disaster recovery efforts. Using Groove Virtual Office, FDEM was able to move large GIS files containing information about where resources were located from a geographic information system lab in Tallahassee to local and county emergency operations centers in Mississippi.
“We were easily moving around big chunks of data. Other systems couldnt handle that,” Fugate said.
CH2M Hill is eager to continue development and training efforts with FDEM after this years hurricane season ends, Waldrop said.
“We plan to work with FDEM once they come up for air from this hurricane season,” Quirk said. “What we will look to do in the fall with EM Constellation is to introduce some capabilities that will allow it to scale a little bit better. We have had some challenges around how … we get hundreds of people invited quickly to a Groove work space.
“Weve been working on solutions to those technical problems around the sheer magnitude of people and the amount of data moving back and forth,” he said.
Additional training will also be a focus. “Because of how aggressively Florida wanted to roll it out, we were able to do a fair amount of training but not as much as we would like,” Quirk said.
Although Grooves software is helping Florida respond better to hurricanes, Fugate said that technology alone does not make or break disaster preparedness and recovery.
“Any software, including Groove, is not a substitute for a system thats not functional in the first place,” he said. “Groove cant substitute for lack of planning or poor coordinating. If youve got a good system, it can enhance that.”