Emergency management information system data needs to be filtered

Technology Writer

An emergency management information system thrives on information, but it can also drown in data. The last thing a first responder needs at a crucial moment is data overload. Useful information is often available, but it's hard to access at the right time, or responders realize too late that such data hasn't been compiled.

Often, effective results come when you combine information from seemingly disparate fields. A recent example of this strategy being used effectively was during a rare ice storm that threatened New Orleans. Federal officials combed through Medicare data to identify people who might be especially vulnerable and shared that information with the city government, The New York Times reports. For instance, kidney dialysis patients were told to get early treatment because clinics were set to close down.

In that case, weather data and information from Medicare helped improve an emergency management information system. With hours left until the storm hit, emergency management officials had time to effectively prepare for a disaster.

Leveraging existing data

That's not always the case, however. When disaster strikes, there's often no time to sift through data, much less try to analyze it. One way to avoid such a situation is to imagine all the possibilities of an emergency situation and line up the data beforehand. Unfortunately, as Rick Wimberly, president of Galain Solutions, a consultancy for emergency management information systems, said in a recent interview, that's not always possible: "The honest truth is, you may not know what data (you'll need) until a situation occurs," he said. "For instance, someone in the field might say, 'Wouldn't it be nice if we knew where all the veterinarians are because we have a situation that requires vets.'"

Voluntary data submission

While that type of information is public, there is other, more sensitive data that remains private but that citizens might still want to put into a database in case of emergency. A good example of this is Smart911, a system that lets families and individuals alert the authorities before an emergency about details that might be relevant if one were to occur. A family with a special-needs child might register with Smart911 so responders can consider this fact in their rescue plans. In a fire, for example, it's useful to know if one of the children is hearing-impaired.

GIS mapping overlay

Disasters occur in distinct geographic areas that may not be neatly defined by a political boundary. In such situations, geographic information system (GIS) mapping software can be tremendously helpful.

Russ Johnson, director of public safety and homeland/national security at ESRI, a mapping solutions firm, says mapping has always been at the center of emergency response. Now, the technology can sync up such maps on mobile devices with cherry-picked data that would be important at such times. Responders can employ a mix of preloaded data and other data they find on the fly. "You can do both," he says. "But if you're in the business of managing and repairing, it has to be done before."

For example, in Southern California, many residents have ranches full of animals. If you need to evacuate such residents, it's helpful if you are able to identify where such animals might be housed beforehand.

Usage gap

Though it's possible to channel the right data to workers in the field, there is still a gap between the technology and actual usage because not everyone has fully embraced these advances, Johnson notes. He says we're about four years away from a time when such usage is ubiquitous.

That's why changing mind-sets is important. Lining up data to be at the ready and soliciting relevant information from citizens — while making sure the technology is up-to-date — can help first responders save more lives.

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