Edited Version of April 1, 1998 Transcript
EIIP Virtual Library Online Presentation

"Emergency Planning on the Internet"

Special Presentation
Rick Tobin

Emergency Planning Consultant, TAO Services

The original transcript of the April 1, 1998 online Virtual Library presentation is available on the EIIP Virtual Forum (http://www.emforum.org). The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. Typos were corrected, date/time/names attributed by the software to each were deleted but content of discussion, questions, and responses are as stated by each participant. Answers from the presenter to questions by the audience are grouped beneath the appropriate question to facilitate meaning. Related questions and discussion from the Brown Bag session (immediately following the presentation) are included in the edited transcript.


Amy Sebring: On behalf of the EIIP, I am pleased to welcome you to a special event in our Library. For those of you who usually sleep during my intro, please ... PAY ATTENTION TO THE FOLLOWING IMPORTANT INFO. We had an upgrade installed last Friday, and because of unexpected changes made to the software, we are having an UNMODERATED session today. That means, whatever you type in the message area can be seen by EVERYBODY, so we beg for your cooperation. Please hold all questions and comments until we get to the Q&A portion of the program. Your questions and comments will go directly to the chat window, NOT through the moderator so you can see the problem we could have with several questions being submitted at once. I ask that you indicate that you have a question by typing just a question mark (?). Then you can prepare your question, but PLEASE HOLD your question until you are recognized. With your cooperation, I think we can make this work. One other warning ... if you are logged in using Full Java Option, do not touch the load page! Minimizing or changing pages will close your chat window.

Now ... before I introduce our special guest, I would like to review how to use links to display Web pages in another browser window for the benefit of our newcomers. When a full URL is typed in the message area, it becomes a hot link, so you can just click on it, and a Webpage will display in another browser window. I will put up an opening screen URL so you may take a moment to size and arrange your windows so that you can swap easily between windows.


And now, it is my pleasure to introduce author, consultant, and EIIP Partner, Rick Tobin. Rick, welcome and thank you for being here today.

Rick Tobin: Thank you for having me on board.




This discussion focuses on why I wrote "Emergency Planning on the Internet", and what Internet needs I see for emergency management in the near Future.

There are a number of steps I noted in the last 8 years regarding the use and understanding of the Internet by emergency management. Each step lead to another level of sophistication indicating that emergency management is climbing the technological ladder...if ever so tenuously. These steps lead me to write a book with my son, "Emergency Planning on the Internet."

In 1991, Thomas Drabek (a noted author and researcher in emergency management issues) discussed the coming use of the PC in emergency management. Even then he noted that, "Increased microcomputer implementation by local and state management agencies could do more to enhance disaster response capacity than any other single change." The Internet was just beginning its leap to public consciousness. Still, Drabek had enough foresight to recognize that "Expanded implementation of microcomputer technology within emergency management brings new risk and dangers that must be recognized explicitly and protected against." Pretty strong words, but he also stressed the Federal Government should take a stronger lead through FEMA, NCCEM, and the State and Local Emergency Management Data Users Group (SALEMDUG).

SALEMDUG did indeed do a tremendous job from the late eighties on along with the Hazardous Materials Information Exchange (HMIX). They both started as Internet bulletin boards for sharing critical information and moved on to prosperous and successful World Wide Web site clearinghouses for critical technical information.

The Natural Hazards Observer newsletter, from the University of Colorado, Boulder, began providing key Internet locations in the middle of the decade. They've been a big support for "newbies" and the experienced, alike. More and more EP magazines and information sources began to support the Internet as well.

Then a few years back, NCCEM and FEMA began formulating some ideas for forums and increasing connectivity, including the use of the Internet, through the Gemini Project and the National Emergency Management Information System (NEMIS). Out of this grew EIIP, and here we are, but that's not the end of the story by any means. EIIP has already had one forum about the Internet on October 19,1997 during their monthly presentations. EIIP now has weekly presentations and forums. So, NCCEM has been right on track with what is breaking in this field.

In December of 1997 my book was released, "Emergency Planning on the Internet."

HYPE AND HYPODERMICS. Next slide please, Amy...


Rick Tobin: My experience in the '90s was that very few emergency management personnel were interested in learning the Internet and its quirky language. It just took too much time sitting in front of the little green screen to get a limited bit of information. People who spoke of their successes on the Internet were looked at as those "geekish" types unstable for the emergency environment. Most of the managers I talked to said, "Come to me when they get if figured out and it's easy to use." In other words, people were willing to be second after the others lead the way.

What really pushed the usability of the Internet was the development of Bulletin Board Systems and e-mail, soon followed by user-friendly browsers. When access software like Trumpet Winsock came along, the coordination of protocols was simplified. And then followed the surfing tools like Netscape---later followed by other surfing tools. Next came new graphically interesting search tools like Alta Vista and Yahoo. Veronica and Gopher search tools had not been graphically interesting. Performing research and find data in a timely manner was becoming so expensive for the private and government sector that the Internet naturally filled a void. Desire to cut costs opened Internet use for information transfer and sharing.

In all of this change, FEMA was aware of the growth of the Internet and its impact. After Hurricane Hugo, FEMA made Internet connections and information sharing a crucial mechanism in their response to Hurricane Andrew, the Northridge Earthquake, and the Missouri-Mississippi flooding. Those of us who saw what they had done were stunned---especially in California where we were supposed to be the cutting edge. Next slide please, Amy...



The problem with some of the earliest uses of the Internet in disaster was the lack of training and coordination. One of the pillars of emergency management is to avoid the use of a new technology in the middle of crisis. There hasn't been enough time to prepare some agencies that tried to use it before they were caught in a disaster. The problem was training and guidance---but where was the guidance?

There were a few books providing directions for finding data on the Internet sites, LISTSERVs and new sites for chemical response, safety and environmental issues. But there was no book that tied the information to training to the stages of emergency management, to cultural changes in the work place and to future planning trends. That is what drove me to write my book.

My experience, and that of other emergency management staff in other government agencies, was that upper management, backed by very obstinate information technology specialists, restricted access to the Internet on a daily basis. Managers, however, had access. IT staff had access. But not line staff.

"Emergency Planning on the Internet" is a tool to help overcome this unacceptable stance. And now, with the increasing number of stories about successful uses of the Internet during disaster, there is a more open environment developing---but it is a cultural change and those always come with pain and spurts of growth.

What is heartening, though, is more and more managers use the World Wide Web. The more they are beginning to believe that their staff should become competent in its use---including put agency plans, updates, staffing, news releases and other information on the Web to serve the public and to serve the organization's own public image. Next slide please, Amy...



The other part of "Emergency Planning on the Internet" is about technical elements. My son Ryan developed much of that since he is a computer whiz. That is one of the key elements for getting the Internet accepted, getting the right hardware. Many emergency management staff feel intimidated by the plethora of devices and terminology. If they didn't start out with a 286 or an early Apple, they may feel technically overwhelmed.

That's where the cultural changes come. Each of us needs to become a technocrat for the next millennium. It is not just a skill; it is a requirement for job security. The time to introduce these skills across the board is now, as the World Wide Web becomes a daily tool for every aspect of our work. But no process will work completely if people are crawling along with the wrong hardware and training. The power of the processing systems today have made such a huge difference. With 300 MHz systems, cable modems, and the growing use of Internet telephone and video conferencing, the old saying becomes a standard "Too fast is not fast enough." The technocrat will have access to incredible information resources and minds around the world. The EIIP Forum is just one example of this capacity.

But before you leap into the technical aspects of the Internet for your emergency management program, I suggest you read the works of Christine Comaford. Especially valuable is her article, "Shipwrecked on the Islands of our LANS." She provides a safe view of interconnectivity by outlining its pitfalls. Her work is easily accessible through your favorite search engine. And what does this all mean?

As faxes became more prevalent 15 years ago I used to tell people that now we could communicate ten times faster than before, but with the same poorly written messages.

The material content and style didn't keep up with the medium. Nor did the Internet and emergency management. Without a new way of approaching all of this data two things are likely to happen. Decision processes are frozen due to mountains of information, or managers shut off the information source, taking the Internet out of the culture and the process. So, it may be either gridlock or whiplash!

One of the missing pieces was a technique to quickly organize and assess the available data. That is another focus of the book ---how to organize the sources, types of information, and during what stage of emergency management. Next slide please, Amy...



There are several steps ahead that are needed to completely tie the Internet into the emergency management environment:

• Ensure the Internet is stable and robust for the future

• Develop interactive online training programs for emergency management

• Develop protocols to support emergency management use as well as public access

• Develop large-scale resource networks independent of the Internet (Intra-net hubs) like California's Response Information Management System (RIMS)

• Develop national international structures for response and recovery over the Internet (ARiS, NEON, NEMIS, GDN, NHEMATIS)

• Strengthen individual's capacity through Internet connectivity. AND IT IS GROWING AS WE SPEAK.


How timely that we should be discussing the applications of the Internet in emergency management, especially during response. During the recent horrific ice storms that assaulted the US Northeast and eastern Canada. The New York Department of State coordinated recovery efforts by linking disaster teams by videoconferencing over the Internet to their remote sites. This system was also used to connect to schools, hospitals and community centers. They were able to do all of this because they had the foresight to install a new frame relay communication system called the Adirondack Area Network. Many private vendors helped government make this amazing process successful. Last slide please, Amy...


Rick Tobin: I'd like to open the floor up now to questions.

[Audience Questions]


Cindy Rice: Several of the acronyms are familiar but I have not seen anything more is there a natural starting point for things like RIMS or other projects going on?

Rick Tobin: That's a good question. Acronyms are killer, and I believe Amy and Avagene have discussed having a cross reference listing for new technologies and acronyms on the EIIP site.

Cindy Rice: We are using forms and other applications (some in-house developed) which may someday reach RIMS status but there is no way to pass info to other agencies which may find them useful.

Rick Tobin: That is one of the great values of RIMS in California. It allows access openly to agencies not even involved in a disaster area but it also allows the agencies involved to secure information that is not yet ready for general distribution.

Burt Wallrich: Rick, a problem is the mass of data when opening e-mail, some useless (Spam), much duplication (self-perpetuating messages on listservs), and then the real stuff, all mixed together

Rick Tobin: Yes, I know the concern. There are filter options on many of the new e-mail software packages, but who has the time to put in new filter references, constantly? I think legislation is the only way to clean up the airways and it has to be enforceable.

Amy Sebring: More questions?

Rick Tobin: The duplication of messages, however, is difficult, and I understand that the software manufacturers are going to allow more options for filtering in the near future.


Amy Sebring: Let me go ahead and ask a question. What future trends do you see emerging Rick?

Rick Tobin: Two primary trends, the good one is lowering costs for all hardware and software applications and the bad one is more and more technology without management training on how to bring it successfully into the workplace. The Internet is just one tool. It should not be a hammer looking for nails to pound. I find managers who are either afraid or wary, or those who jump in without preparing staff and wonder why staff scream in frustration.


Cindy Rice: If there is to be a cross-reference on technology, when might it go online?

Rick Tobin: Amy, that's your turf.

Amy Sebring: We do need something like she is asking for. It is very hard to keep up with all the changes!


Tim Murphy: Many of our EM folks at local level are reluctant to trust the Internet to be there for them during a disaster. Consequently they do not want to lean on it when the sun shines. Do you feel that dial-up access can be available during a hurricane?? A loaded question perhaps, but a common remark I hear.

Rick Tobin: That's an important question. Actually, one of the most stable utilities in disaster has proven to be the telephone service. However, keep your camels tied down. In California we have something called the Operational Area Satellite Information System (OASIS). This is a hardened, disaster resistant system to back up the phone services.


Tim Murphy: Can OASIS support TCP/IP?

Rick Tobin: It connects the State to every county EOC. It's not perfect either but it is another back up trail and can allow continued connectivity. We've already used Internet connections through OASIS.

Tim Murphy: Thanks.


Darryl Parker: Rick, is the time delay of the Internet much of a problem? What values are typical? What values are acceptable? What values are reasonable?

Rick Tobin: Darryl, one of the biggest problems is overload during disaster. One of the examples in the book is about a key state site that gave river levels from a state agency in California during the 1997 floods. They had no idea that there would be such an intense PUBLIC interest. Two days into the event their server was swamped and we couldn't access it for response information. Of course we still had direct access to the agency, and their reps, and got information that way, but without planning ahead for peak loads it can be a nightmare.

Cindy Rice: KY's Dept of Education has a statewide network into every county. They are in the process of looking for expanded bandwidth, more than regular phone lines, other agencies, state or commercial nets that they can appropriate during a crisis or emergency.

Rick Tobin: There are, of course, many options for bandwidth. ISDN is one option, T-1 and T-3 can help, and ATM lines are sky-high in cost. The use of cable systems may be the answer, but they are not universal yet.


Vernon Adler: If a server will be swamped, can't advance preparedness through mirroring be accomplished?

Rick Tobin: Yes, Vernon, they can. But the agency in this example didn't think mirroring would be necessary. They mirror information now, however, and have separate access for disaster services connections.


Randall Davis: NYS is laying fiber alongside the Thruway (major Statewide highway system) to develop a 'State Info Superhighway' to link to the Fed Superhighway - does the Fed effort help standardize state nets???

Rick Tobin: Fiber optic is wonderful, once in place, but vulnerable to earthquake and accidental cutting, as are all lines. I don't think FEMA has a complete answer on a national system yet. The UN and other countries, like Canada, are pushing for larger system, that have a standard look, feel, and use for information management during disaster. Burt Wallrich, who is online with us, is also developing such a network for local non-profit and other accessible resources through the NERIN project. That's just one example of trying to develop standardized systems, but there is no single "blueprint" answer out there, yet. I think RIMS works for California, but I don't know that it would work for the entire nation.


Ken Jordan: Was OASIS funded completely by the state of California or were there other resources available?

Rick Tobin: As might be expected, FEMA played a funding role in the process as part of the California Cooperative Agreement Process. It wasn't cheap, and I don't know that funding today would allow for its production in all 50 states.


Amy Sebring: Thank you very much Rick for a thought-provoking session. We will have the transcript of today's session posted in a few days with the background material <http://www.emforum.org/vlibrary/980401.htm>

Vernon Adler: I have a lot of gray screen time so my questions may lag the 'conversation'. Nevertheless, I'd like to ask if these State and Federal 'lines', often inaccessible one to another, could be integrated in the so-called NDIN, or National Disaster Information Network, currently funded at the Federal level?

Rick Tobin: I'm hoping I can discuss some of the other elements of the book in general chat.

Amy Sebring: Thank you audience, and since our time is up, we will close down the Library for today, but we will be in the Virtual Forum room for a few minutes longer, and you are welcome to join us there for open discussion. Thank you also audience for your cooperation today. It worked out very well thanks to you. Let's go back on over to Virtual Forum.


Further Discussions and Questions in the Virtual Room - After additional expressions of appreciation to Rick Tobin, a few participants stayed for the second hour with additional comments and discussion related to the library presentation; the following are excerpts from the Brown Bag session that convey additional information about "Emergency Planning on the Internet".

Amy Sebring: There is more info on Rick's book in background info, if you haven't already seen it. Rick you would almost have to do a chapter a month don't you think to keep up?

Rick Tobin: You mean read a chapter of my book...or present it?

Amy Sebring: Write it!! To update it. Vol. II!

Rick Tobin: Yes, and more. Deregulation of the communications industry makes this very difficult to follow.

Amy Sebring: Cindy and Randall, one of the places to watch coming up will be <http://www.disasterinfo.net> Let me check that that is the right link. Yes that is it. This is the home page for the NDIN/GDIN interagency effort. There is not much there yet, but one to watch in future.

Neil Blais: Rick, Amy touches on a good point. With the continued explosion of hardware, software and communications capabilities, pre-planning of a system is becoming extremely important.

Rick Tobin: Absolutely, and in the book I stress over and over that any EP Manager out there must have regular and frequent contact with their IT support. In fact, at the end of each chapter I have "Bright Ideas" to lead managers to the Net and IT. The generation issue is a key focus in the book. There are three main user age groups amongst us now...what I call the X, Y, and Z generations. Well, the IT support issue---who is being served, who is the server---is an issue. There are some specialists who hold the hearts of their organization hostage, and they love it. But that will decline in the near future. Anyway, the three generations of worker in EM have very different cultural needs when introducing technologies. That's one thing the book addresses in depth.

Randall Davis: (joking). IT support is hard to come by, I'm not sure it really exists. Seems to me the IT 'High Priests' are holding on to outdated technology - the cutting edge folks are all at Microsoft, etc.

Amy Sebring: No joke Randall. IT has its priorities like everyone else. EM may not be on top of the list. IT has Y2K as a priority at the moment! (year 2000 issues).

Neil Blais: Actually Y2K is still a big issue in the area of business continuity planning. The internal system may be Y2K compatible, but what about your support industries, etc.?

Rick Tobin: Neil is quite right. I encounter the ostrich complex daily. If we're okay we don't have to worry about those "other people".

Neil Blais: Rick, do you feel that the use of e-mail has reduced some of the "personal responsibility" of the emergency responders? For example; During the LA City EQ exercise, one responder sent a low priority message concerning a dam failure, no one followed up to see if it was received with the appropriate urgency.

Rick Tobin: Excellent question. One of the things we are doing with RIMS is building in flash options, etc. But, this is no excuse for communications skills, which include the feedback mechanism and that's not just squishy-feely psych-101 stuff! It's critical that our staffs in the EOCs know when something is critical.

Randall Davis: My boss just chimed in and said that the way info is managed is 'irrelevant to the mode of communication'. It could have been a fax or phone call.

Amy Sebring: I agree Randall, however with email especially, you have to realize it may not go through as fast as you expect.

Cindy Rice: Some FEMA/Army software funded apps have a flashing eye to alert and some have a time to respond alert which is useful.

Rick Tobin: Cindy, those are good, and should be used. But in the first 10 hours of a catastrophic event, when there are literally thousands of critical messages, there must be a better filtering system. If it is that urgent you better send fax or call also.

Randall Davis: True - that's why Email needs a prioritization scheme which bucks important messages to the front of the heap.

Rick Tobin: Every advertiser has the same problem...how to get through the noise of other messages If you use an "ICS" system, you've got to have really dedicated, sharp Planning and Intelligence staff looking for this kind of error. Its both a training issue and an appropriate staffing issue.

Cindy Rice: True but the staff is never adequate to the need.

Rick Tobin: Enabling and right-sizing EOCs can be a monster with the limited budgets faced by local government. Creativity is not the single answer. It takes community support. I'm finding more and more retired people who are very trainable and interested, and who can do a heck of a good job in the EOC---the right ones can add tremendous balance and evenness---just don't work them 36 straight.

Thank you all again for taking your valuable time to be here today. Hope to see you Thursday nights, or on Wednesday forums. Bye, and good health to you all. Ciao---yes, or Tuesdays.