Brief session description:
Thursday, July 26, 2012 – Recent man-made and natural disasters around the globe have highlighted the importance of ICTs for connecting public safety officials, coordinating response operations and keeping citizens informed. Additionally, new and emerging Internet-based tools, mobile applications and social media have transformed disaster-relief efforts, providing real-time data for first responders and empowering citizens to access and share life-saving information and locate loved ones. Enhanced situational awareness via multiple platforms offers almost instantaneous and ubiquitous information regarding implications for life and property and individuals impacted by natural or man-made risks and threats. Internet-based communication is increasingly relied upon to support disaster preparation, response and recovery. Workshop participants looked at what must be done to ensure resilient infrastructures and continuity of operations, including keeping citizens informed. Panelists were invited to share their perspectives and the lessons learned from recent disasters and to work to identify recommendations for collaboration among stakeholders in preparing for future disasters.
Details of the session:
The moderator was Joe Burton, counselor for technology and security policy in the Communications and Information Policy Office of the US State Department. Panelists were:
- Garland T. McCoy, founder and president of the Technology Education Institute
- Kristin Peterson, CEO and co-founder of Inveneo, an organization that provides ICTs to remote areas
- Keith Robertory, disaster response emergency communications manager for the American Red Cross
- Véronique Pluviose-Fenton, counsel at the U.S. House of Representatives
- Tom Sullivan, chief of staff of the Federal Communications Commission
Last month, severe storms in the Northern Virginia/Washington, D.C., metro area not only knocked out Internet service, but also caused an outage of 911 Emergency Response telephone services that lasted four days.
The Best Practice Forum at IGF-USA Thursday at Georgetown Law Center featured a discussion between government and NGO representatives on how to address this type of scenario and best coordinate disaster response in the current technological era.
According to Garland McCoy, founder of the Technology Education Institute, the 911 outage highlights the flaws of the current IP-backed telephone system, which evolved from the analog, hard-wired telephone system.
“Back in the twisted copper-wire days, the power could go out but your phone would stay on,” McCoy said. But the IP phone system now has ”hub and spoke” architecture with a single point of failure, known as a Big Data facility.
Véronique Pluviose-Fenton, a congressional staffer who focuses on homeland security and disaster response, spoke on the failures of the communication system following major catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Pluviose-Fenton emphasized the importance of interoperability—the ability of networked communications systems to communicate with each other.
“We all watched live what happens when they (first responders) couldn’t communicate,” she said, referencing the chaos of the 2001 attacks on the United States, when police officers and fire fighters could not talk or relay warnings.
Keith Robertory, disaster services technology manager for the American Red Cross, said it’s possible to build an entirely interoperable network, but there are quite a few political roadblocks standing in the way. “Can you imagine if the New York police chief and fire chief are trying to agree who owns a shared network and who controls it?” Robertory asked, illustrating the difficulty of interconnectivity.
Pluviose-Fenton agreed, saying, “I still fundamentally feel that even with the advances in technology, there still is a problem with will.”
This is not just a domestic issue, as disasters in foreign countries have also put communication technology to the test. US agencies and NGOs often join the global-assistance efforts when disaster strikes elsewhere.
Kristin Peterson, CEO of Inveneo (a non-profit focused on ICTs in the developing world), discussed her role in establishing a wireless network in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake that destroyed nearly all existing communication systems in the island nation. Every aid group providing relief had its own network, from the American Red Cross to the US military.
“Within 24 hours we knew we had to put up a WiFi network,” Peterson said.
The task took several days but was a necessary step in orchestrating the global response in aiding Haitian refugees, from providing food and water to distributing shoes sent by singer Jessica Simpson.
“If you can’t communicate, you can’t coordinate your response,” Peterson said.
Tom Sullivan, chief of staff of the US Federal Communications Commission, said that even Japan, a country with an extremely sophisticated communications system and other cutting-edge technology, had to depend on a backup power grid following the 2011 earthquake.
He said it is necessary for the United States to develop a strong contingency communications plan in order to be prepared for the inevitable arrival of yet another Katrina-esque catastrophe or any devastating emergency situation. Robertory elaborated on this need. He supervises American Red Cross efforts to establish emergency communications infrastructures when providing relief to victims of disasters.
He and Sullivan also emphasized the importance of citizen engagement in a field where first-response is not and never will be 100-percent reliable.
“If 911 services were bad, wouldn’t you be more likely to learn first aid and CPR?” Robertory asked. He explained that citizens should form their own personal contingency plans should communication fail in the aftermath of a disaster.
All of the panelists agreed that advances in technology provide both new opportunities and new challenges for those responsible for disaster relief.
– Brennan McGovern
The multimedia reporting team for Imagining the Internet at IGF-USA 2012
included the following Elon University students, staff, faculty and alumni:
Jeff Ackermann, Bryan Baker, Ashley Barnas, Katie Blunt, Mary Kate Brogan, Joe Bruno, Kristen Case, Allison D’Amora, Colin Donohue, Keeley Franklin, Janae Frazier, Ryan Greene, Audrey Horwitz, Elizabeth Kantlehner, Perri Kritz, Morgan Little, Madison Margeson, Katie Maraghy, Brennan McGovern, Brian Mezerski, Julie Morse, Janna Anderson.