EIIP Virtual Forum Presentation — April 25, 2007

Improving Disaster Management
The Role of IT in Mitigation, Preparedness, Response, and Recovery

Ramesh R. Rao, Ph.D.
Art Botterell
John R. (Jack) Harrald, Ph.D.
Committee on Using Information Technology to Enhance Disaster Management
Computer Science and Telecommunications Board (CSTB)
National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences

Amy Sebring
EIIP Moderator

The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. A raw, unedited transcript is available from our archives. See our home page at http://www.emforum.org

[Welcome / Introduction]

Amy Sebring: Good morning/afternoon everyone. Thank you for joining us today. On behalf of Avagene and myself, welcome to the EIIP Virtual Forum! Our topic today is "Improving Disaster Management: The Role of IT in Mitigation, Preparedness, Response, and Recovery"

This is a new report from the National Academies' Computer Science and Telecommunications Board (CSTB) Committee on Using Information Technology to Enhance Disaster Management.

Currently, a pre-publication version is available online at the National Academies Press Website (which is linked from today's Background Page), but our information is that the publication version will be available for free PDF download as of this Friday, April 27th.

Now it is my pleasure to introduce today's representatives from the CSTB Committee. The Chair of the Committee is Dr. Ramesh Rao, who will be our presenter. Dr. Rao has been on the faculty of the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of California, San Diego, where he is currently Professor and Director of the San Diego Division of the California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technology. He has also consulted extensively for Government agencies and industry, and has served on a US Government panel to review the current status of research, development, and applications in wireless communications in the United States, Japan, and Western Europe.

Assisting Dr. Rao during our Q&A are two long-time friends of the Forum, Art Botterell and Dr. Jack Harrald, both having presented for us previously. Art Botterell is the Community Warning System Manager, Contra Costa County California Office of the Sheriff. He is an internationally-recognized expert in emergency communications who has served on the front lines of some of the biggest national disasters in recent U.S. history.

Jack Harrald is the director of the George Washington University (GWU) Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management and a professor of engineering management in the GWU School of Engineering and Applied Science. He is a founding member, director, and immediate past president of the International Emergency Management Society.

Welcome to you all gentlemen, and thank you for taking the time to be with us today. I now turn the floor over to you Ramesh to start us off.


Ramesh Rao: Thank you Amy. My colleagues and I are delighted to have this opportunity to share the highlights of the committee report.

Information technology (IT) has the potential to play a critical role in managing natural and human made disasters. Damage to communications infrastructure, along with other communications problems exacerbated the difficulties in carrying out response and recovery efforts following Hurricane Katrina.

To assist government planning in this area, the Congress, in the E-government Act of 2002, directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to request the NRC to conduct a study on the application of IT to disaster management.

In early 2005, in response to a request from FEMA to the National Research Council, via a contract with Battelle Memorial Institute, the Committee on Using Information Technology to Enhance Disaster Management was established under the auspices of the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board (CSTB) to study these issues.

In the first phase of this study, a workshop was held June 22-23, 2005, to provide an information base from the perspective of federal, state, and local officials, disaster management experts, and information technology researchers. In phase 2 of the study, the committee supplemented the inputs received at the workshop with information gathered at several site visits and a series of additional briefings.

The following is a link to the CSTB report page, and if you scroll down, you will find a list of the committee members and staff. You can also access the project page from here and the National Academies Press page for ordering information. http://www7.nationalacademies.org/cstb/pub_fema.html

This report characterizes disaster management providing a framework for considering the range and nature of information and communication needs; presents a vision of the potential for IT to improve disaster management; provides an analysis of structural, organizational, and other non-technical barriers to the acquisition, adoption, and effective use of IT in disaster; and offers an outline of a research program aimed at strengthening IT-enabled capabilities for disaster management.

There are six key areas in which shorter-term development and longer-term research offer the potential for significant benefits:

(1) more robust, interoperable, and priority-sensitive communications;

(2) better situational awareness and a common operating picture;

(3) improved decision support and resource tracking and allocation;

(4) greater organizational agility for disaster management;

(5) better engagement of the public; and

(6) enhanced infrastructure survivability and continuity of societal functions.

Both short- and long-term opportunities exist in each of these areas for enhancing responsiveness and increasing resilience by using IT to enhance all phases of disaster management. In the short term, there are a number of specific opportunities. Some, such as laptops with wireless local area network cards, may already be in the hands of users but are not fully exploited because they may not have been identified as useful tools. Policies and procedures for their use have not been established, and they have not been incorporated into training and exercises.

Significant investment in long-term research programs also will be needed. Development of roadmaps is recommended as a tool to engage diverse stakeholders and inform R&D investments. Such R&D activities must be well coupled to the parts of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and state and local agencies that are responsible for mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery activities to ensure that requirements are grounded in operational needs and to ensure that solutions can be transferred into operations. R&D planning also should be a vital element of policy formulation to ensure that technological and organizational questions are considered together.

Acquisition and adoption of IT for disaster management is challenging for several reasons including the distributed responsibility for disaster management within the U.S. federal system. The intrinsically uncertain and unstable nature of disasters, and their infrequency and relative unpredictability also make planning for investment decisions, collaboration, and skills development difficult.

There are a number of ways disaster management organizations could address these challenges. For example, a diversified acquisition strategy that includes increased use of commercial information technology and greater use of open source software and open standards development is one means of overcoming existing barriers.

This approach will require many organizations to improve their technical and technology management capabilities and to work more closely with technology providers to define, shape, and integrate new technologies into their overall IT system.

IT acquisition can also be enhanced through a set of best practices and design principles. These include an emphasis on iterative development, increased opportunities to test and evaluate technology, and design and evaluation processes that allow for strong coupling among practitioners, researchers, and industry. Four design principles have particular importance:

  • effective scaling from routine to disaster operation;
  • exploitation of redundancy and diversity;
  • flexibility, composability, and interoperability; and
  • distinguishing between the user interface and the underlying technologies.

Another important aspect of effective use of IT in disasters is training and routine use. Too much IT in place today for disaster management is not integrated into day-to-day operations, with the result that it remains underutilized.

The introduction of new IT often presents opportunities for new organizational approaches, which should be considered in any reorganization efforts. Successful technology development also requires consideration of organizational context. Co-development of technology and organizational practice seems especially important at present. A number of relevant technologies have reached a sufficient level of maturity to allow innovative organizational approaches.

Multidisciplinary research centers would be an especially useful mechanism for:

(1) developing a shared understanding of the challenges in all phases of disaster management;

(2) evaluating the application of technology advances to disaster management practice;

(3) developing a culture and processes for moving knowledge and technology to the operational communities;

(4) building human capital at the intersection of IT and disaster management;

(5) serving as repositories for data and lessons learned; and

(6) providing analysis to inform the development of technology capabilities, associated organizational processes, and roadmap development.

Such centers should include a variety of disciplines, including scientists, engineers, and hazard and disaster researchers, and should include partnerships with federal, state, and local disaster management agencies. Experienced and capable disaster management organizations should be deeply involved in the work of these centers. They could assist agencies seeking to implement a diversified acquisition strategy and incorporate best practices, and serve as a means for disaster managers and responders to share experiences and communicate requirements to guide further technology developments.

Finally, systematic collection of data, measurement, and assessment are needed to drive improvements in disaster management. The emphasis should be on measuring the effectiveness of disaster management activities, not the performance of the IT per se. Moreover, independent mechanisms for assessing the effectiveness of disaster management operations, including the use of IT, and for disseminating lessons learned and best practices, could prove valuable for improving IT use in disaster management.

This concludes our brief overview of the report, and we will be happy to go into more detail in response to your questions and comments. I now turn the floor back over to our Moderator.

Amy Sebring: Thank you very much Ramesh. Now, to proceed to your questions or comments.

[Audience Questions & Answers]

William Cumming: Obviously have not yet read the new NRC report, but was or is there discussion of resiliency and restoration criteria or standards?

Ramesh Rao: We did recognize the need for recovery and resilience but did not yet get into standards except in generic sense. There is some discussion about engaging the informal open source sector.

Ric Skinner: For hospital/healthcare sector I addressed, at least in part, your 6 key areas in a white paper: "Making the Case for an Interoperable, Multi-scale Hospital/Healthcare Knowledge Domain" (http://www.baystatehealth.com/gis).

Ramesh Rao: Yes Ric, I did read your report briefly. There is a good bit of overlap, which reaffirms the recommendations.

W. R. Lang: Will the centers consider things like GRID computing as a source of uninterrupted computing resources, like the Internet is for network communications today?

Ramesh Rao: I think this is inevitable. It would be hard to recreate stand alone, isolated systems when the grid is there to plug into

Donovan: How much emphasis does the report put on education and tools for the front-line folks who may not have a strong technical background? I'm thinking about the Disaster Management Coordinator in the small Red Cross office that is responding to a tornado. Over and over, I've seen solutions that are financially or technologically out of this person's reach. Does the report go into this at all?

Art Botterell: This is a major theme in the report. We spent a lot of time looking at the problems of disseminating technologies and the skills to use them, and also on the usability of tools for people under stress. (I do recommend the book highly!)

Amy Sebring: Can you summarize the recommendation in this area Art?

Art Botterell: Perhaps Ramesh has the summary right at hand? It actually comes through in a number of places including the "center of excellence" proposal and others.

Ramesh Rao: Pasting in the actual recommendation: "Recommendation 6: In the design, acquisition, and operation of IT systems, disaster management organizations should emphasize the incorporation of disaster response capabilities into the systems that support routine operations.

Unless experience is gained through routine use or regular training, the full benefits of investment in IT systems are unlikely to be realized. Routine use is particularly important for developing the competence and confidence required to successfully use a technological capability in disaster situations." This theme ran through the entire report.

Edwina Juillet: Simple question: is the NRC the "National Research Council" of Canada?

Ramesh Rao: No, the National Research Council (of the USA).

Ric Skinner: Re Recommendation 6, a number of interoperability systems will be tested in the upcoming Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstration in June. Does the report recognize these initiatives and systems?

Ramesh Rao: We spoke about the need to make certain that agencies coordinated amongst themselves so there was a broader awareness. This specific one had not come up, but would fit in I think.

William Cumming: What should the federal government do to develop an implementation strategy for the NRC recommendations? What should the private sector strategy be to implement the recommendations?

Ramesh Rao: We get into this in some detail in the report. One key element out of a dozen or so was roadmapping as a tool to emulate the success from the semiconductor industry.

Cesar Bandera: Any major thrusts identified for exploiting (unhardened) consumer services in the front-line, like wireless messaging?

Ramesh Rao: Absolutely. There was broad recognition that the first responders are whoever happens to be on the scene, and they will use what they have. We would be wise to have that all meld in whenever possible. Also, commercial technology is more ubiquitous and low cost at times, so we need to take advantage whenever possible

Kailash Gupta: Are user defined interoperable radios covered in the report? Are they commercially available now?

Ramesh Rao: We get into interoperability a great deal. We also address the need for operability. There are new commercial developments popping up all the time, but acquisition issues have to be addressed too, and organizational corollaries to interoperability at the tech level.

John Harrald: I think it is important to note that the report also discusses the non-technical aspects of interoperability.

Amy Sebring: Does the report specifically address radio as part of IT?

Ramesh Rao: Yes it does, but it goes beyond that in quite significant ways. Art do you want to chime in here on the taxonomy of what is often meant when one talks about communications?

Art Botterell: Certainly. We talk about "communications" and frequently imagine that's merely a matter of technology, but obviously there's much more to it than that. There's also procedure and planning. There's the training, skills, attitudes and condition of the human users, and the organizational contexts and agendas within which they operate. So "interoperability" covers not just any one technology, or even all types of technology, but also the procedural, human factors, and organization considerations as well.

Claire Rubin: Is the print-version of the report ready or when is the publication date?

Jon Eisenberg: Books are supposed to be available for order, and a free PDF available for download, from National Academies Press on or about April 27. Go to http://www.cstb.org or http://www.nap.edu for both.

Ric Skinner: Does interoperability recognize the need for a common language, such as in being developed with the Common Alerting Protocol, and which is used by applications like Disaster Management Interoperability Services (DMIS), WebEOC, MyUSA and others?

Art Botterell: We certainly discuss the importance of common, open standards as one of the foundations of interoperability. There are also issues of "discovery," that is, once everyone can talk to everyone, how do we find each other? Sort of the "directory service" problem. This, too, is an area where open standards are needed.

Chris Hekimian: Were biometric systems discussed in the report? Such as those that would assist in the equitable distribution of emergency supplies?

Ramesh Rao: We did not get into that in detail, but we did address systems that would help track inventory and relief payments. Jack do you want to address the value of this?

John Harrald: We also discuss (briefly) biometric for ID purposes. The issue is security. We briefly addressed the issue of using technology to enhance security (track personnel, control access, etc)

Ramesh Rao: There are issues of privacy that often come up in such contexts.

Art Botterell: I merely wanted to mention that the report didn't try to evaluate particular technologies so much as talk about the ongoing processes by which we develop and disseminate new technologies of all types. Biometrics are hot right now, of course.

Ramesh Rao: I remember Ellis Stanley talking about multiple relief payments being made to the same person from his LA disaster experience.

Susanne Jul: Could you say a bit about why the report singles out the design principle of "separating user interface and underlying technology"? And, does it refer to conceptual separation or actual functional separation? (Or both?)

Ramesh Rao: Let me see. The main point is to listen carefully to the user needs without immediately overlaying a particular technology fix. The idea is to let the user convey the need and then discover iteratively the best solution.

Art Botterell: The answer, I think, is "both." We realized that a lot of times, decision makers and users alike had difficulties in handling change that stemmed from a conflation of the user interface (e.g., a cellular handset or a two-way radio) with the underlying technology (a cellular network or a radio repeater). Our point was that these are distinct issues that can be mixed and matched in ways that history may not have shown us yet.

Amy Sebring: Ted is a staffer at CSTB and has some clarification on the NRC.

Ted Schmitt: At Amy’s suggestion, I wanted to briefly explain who the NRC and the National Academies are. NRC is the National Research Council. It is the operational arm of the National Academies, which includes the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. The National Academy Press (NAP) is the publishing arm of the Academies. In addition to our report, there are a number of recent and past studies available on the NAP site (http://www.nap.edu) related to disasters and disaster management that the attendees may find of interest. The Computer Science and Telecommunication’s Board (http://www.cstb.org) has done a number of studies related to disaster management and IT, though the report today took a comprehensive approach to the role of IT in disaster management.

William Cumming: Is there any discussion by the NRC in its report of spectrum management policy or issues?

Ramesh Rao: We looked into it, but we took a much broader view of communications. We are, of course, aware of specific initiatives being discussed, and there are other CSTB reports that address this in more detail.

Amy Sebring: Since this report was originally required by Congress, do you know if FEMA will formally submit this report back to Congress?

Ramesh Rao: Jon/Ted? We did brief the Senate committee.

Jon Eisenberg: I can answer that. There is a formal reporting via the Office of Management and Budget, but as Ramesh notes, we directly briefed the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee staff.

Ric Skinner: Responding to Art's earlier comment on "directory service," ‘finding’ everyone sounds in many ways to be a geographic issue. To what extent is Geographic Information Systems technology addressed in the report for asset tracking, situational awareness and decision support?

Ramesh Rao: David Kehrlein from ESRI was on the committee. We did get into this in a big way -- maps in the field and their updating in real time as necessary.

John Harrald: GIS as a key enabling technology is considered throughout.

Christopher Effgen: I have scanned your paper, but it seems to me that it states what would be self-evident to anyone who considered these issues. There have been a number of efforts that have been started in this direction (GDIN for example), and little of significance has come about from them. Is there any reason to believe that this will work out differently?

Ramesh Rao: We do not directly make decisions on creating new programs we can only influence. So will this lead to real change? Jack?

John Harrald: Christopher has a key concern. It relates to an earlier question as to what DHS/FEMA does next. If the initiatives are not accepted by the preparedness and operational elements of DHS/FEMA, we will not get very far if the report is just seen as an initiative of S&T. The next step is critical. Who owns the results?

Art Botterell: (Yes, we spent no small amount of time talking about that ourselves.) Ultimately I think all we can do is tell the truth as best we can see it, and put that on the record and hope it’s of value to folks making and influencing decisions.

Ramesh Rao: The senate staff seemed receptive. I should add that DHS has three new Calls for Proposals out on centers of excellence, all out of S&T at DHS I believe.

Paul Currion: Ramesh, earlier you pointed out that the first on the scene are the first responders, and that any IT planning has to take into account that they will be using whatever technology is to hand. Does your report have any findings on how the ‘victims’ also play a role as ‘responders’ and how that might affect planning (IT or otherwise) at the community level?

Ramesh Rao: Paul, we did talk about two way information flow in a disaster that picks up on what you just said, using citizen reports and so on to improve one’s awareness.

W. R. Lang: There are several events that can render certain technologies almost useless. Does the report make any recommendations on manual contingency processes so the data management doesn’t fall apart with something like an EMP? Or is the goal to harden the technology so it can/must be used under all scenarios?

Art Botterell: We took a very broad view of "technology" and we also identified a trade-off between efficiency and resilience.

Ramesh Rao: I think we recognized the need to support multiple modalities all the way down to runners -- not to get locked into this one big monolithic system.

Donovan: Related to Christopher's question, are there recommendations that can be implemented by those of us ‘on-the-ground’? I manage the Canadian Red Cross office in a small city of 56,000 people. Are there recommendations that I can put into practice?

Art Botterell: The report really was written with a high-level policy audience in mind, but I do believe that the concepts included such as roadmapping are applicable at any level.

Ramesh Rao: If I might dive into one detail, I would say adoption of citizen reporting systems coming in over cell phones.

Avagene Moore: In follow up to Christopher's question and other points made: Ramesh, you made the point that IT is underutilized in disaster management. However, we know many states and local jurisdictions have purchased and / or installed various incident management software. Your report accurately states that technology is good only when used on a daily basis. After 10 years in the Virtual Forum, we (Amy and I) have learned that people are fearful of anything they don't understand and technology is rarely intuitive for folks.

In my opinion, this is not a financial or technological problem and it will not be overcome by a federal push or mandate. I believe it is an educational problem. Would you agree it is a matter of practitioners seeing the value of doing things differently / hopefully better, and therefore learning to use the tools available versus doing things in the same old way? Comment, please.

Ramesh Rao: I agree with your observation Ava. You have to see the value and learn to use before the big crisis hits. The browser and cell phones are good examples. People see the value and then it gets incorporated into official systems.

Art Botterell: All I can add is a hearty "Yes!" and assure you that view is definitely reflected throughout the report.

John Harrald: I think Ava's point is a good point to end on. We cannot provide technology that is only used during rare events. The technology must flow seamlessly from day to day operations. It has to be flexible and able to expand in scale and scope.


Amy Sebring: That's all we have time for today. I think we could have gone on much longer due to good questions and comments! Thank you very much Ramesh, Art and Jack for an excellent job. I would also like to thank Ted Schmitt and Jon Eisenberg at the CSTB for their assistance with arranging today's presentation.

We hope you enjoyed the experience and hope that your findings will be considered in the future. Please stand by a moment while we make a couple of quick announcements.

Again, the formatted transcript will be available later today. If you are not on our mailing list and would like to get notices of future sessions and availability of transcripts, just go to our home page to Subscribe. If your organization is interested in becoming an EIIP Partner, please see the link to Partnership for You.

Thanks to everyone for participating today. We stand adjourned but before you go, please help me show our appreciation to Ramesh, Art and Jack for a fine job.