IT Plays Vital Role in Disaster Readiness

Infrastructure, applications and responder training all affect ability to handle extreme situations.

Emergency management is becoming a high-profile topic in government agencies, at industry sites and even on college campuses. In all of these settings, IT developers should take an active role in assuring the readiness of both infrastructure and applications to handle information under far from ideal conditions.

Getting accurate data at the scene of an emergency, even from others who are also on the site, is an essential but often difficult early step. When emergency responders from more than one group need to coordinate their actions, they often find that their wireless communications systems dont work across agency or department boundaries. This problem is addressed by a 104-page report from the National Task Force on Interoperability, whose member associations include both political and public safety leadership groups: Among the many useful materials in that document are assessment instruments for reviewing and documenting an organizations needs and current communication resources.

Theres a traditional solution to wireless incompatibility: Drop a few organic translators, also known as ham radio operators, into the command center and let them relay messages among the parties involved. Having trained hams on call is a cost-effective strategy for public safety emergencies, and many agencies make it a formal part of their planning. In several recent cases, hams have also turned out to be equally adept in repairing PCs and patching together networks: Many of them, after all, first learned to program in solder.

In my own southern California location, where mild winters are kind to outdoor antennas, there are many hams working at local aerospace and other technically focused firms: Many enjoy the convenience of a radio club station on company premises that also serves as an auxiliary communications center, with its own dual-duty operators and maintenance technicians. If your site has no such facility, it might be worth looking for someone to be the sparkplug for putting one together.

Its not enough just to be there: Accuracy requires that operators be fluent, or at least conversant, in the dialects of police, firefighter, law enforcement and medical personnel all at once. Thats especially important in situations combining real-time pressure with essentially zero tolerance for error. Training for emergency communicators, just like the establishment of data dictionaries for enterprise IT, is vital.

Some of this training burden can be offset by the use of digital formats, including imagery and even video as well as text. This suggests useful applications for what sometimes seem frivolities, such as cell-phone picture-message capabilities: An employee on an emergency site might not know, for example, the color codes used to warn of toxic or explosive hazards, but might be able to transmit an image thats immediately and accurately understood by dispatchers. I hasten to warn, though, that cellular networks in some areas are easily saturated when many users attempt simultaneous calls, which means they are not a reliable platform in emergency situations.

The fourth full weekend in June is always the occasion of Field Day, an annual nationwide exercise--often taking place in public locations, such as parks or hospital parking structures--in emergency communication by amateur ("ham") radio operators.

I wish Id thought to write on this subject a few weeks ago, so that I could have suggested that readers be on the lookout for a Field Day site that they might visit--but theres always next year, assuming that you have the plans in place to cope with whatever comes up between now and then.

Tell me how ready you feel to keep the bits moving despite the bangs.

P.S.—The original paper on Unix utilities reliability, as studied by feeding them random input, is at Thanks to the many readers of these letters who sent me this link: I was looking right at that CiteSeer page, but all I saw was citations and I missed the inconspicuous links to their source.