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Published on February 18th, 2013 | by EJC


Digitising Disasters: From Coordinating Relief To Crowdmapping Care

This article was written by Christoph Dennenmoser from HumanityRoad, and originally published on IM EINSATZ . Republished and edited with permission. 

Assembling the best team possible is the best way to prepare for a disaster. That means calling on a range of humanitarian actors, including military forces and relief organizations, armed with the latest technologies. Digital tools like ‘QuickNets’ provide situational analysis of real-life humanitarian crises and show how different actors can best coordinate when, for example, faced by a tsunami. This is the story of its biggest deployment to date.

Military forces from around the Pacific Rim gather every two years for one of the biggest maritime warfare exercises in the world: RIMPAC. Featuring an aircraft carrier, submarines, hundreds of aircraft and thousands of military personnel, this US-led operation normally lasts four-weeks and is normally a purely military exercise. RIMPAC 2012 was different.

On 29 June 2012, for the first time ever, organisers included a Humanitarian Assistance / Disaster Response component, reflecting how military forces now provide rapid technical and human resources to support humanitarian organizations in responding to disasters. Around 1500 soldiers were put on alert for a 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Chile and the resulting tsunami which hit the fictional island state of ‘Chianti’. Then, to bring the situation under control, military forces, NGOs and UN agencies worked together to deliver relief to the affected areas.

As in a real disaster, relief operations were led by the affected local government, which set up a ‘Humanitarian Assistance Coordination Center’ (HACC) for relief organizations, NGOs (such as Red Cross, WHO, World Food Programme), UNO / UN OCHA. These roles were played by experienced relief helpers from in- and outside the military from Australia, Canada and USA, as well as a rep from the Hawaiian Health Ministry. Navy liaison officers also joined briefings to speed up exchange of information.

A rep from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in the HACC was the main contact person for the military forces. After weighing the request, and only when there was no NGO able to respond, the military forces sprung into action. In the beginning this turned out to be the main challenge for USAID-delegate Liz Mantillo.

“From the third day on it became much easier,” Mantillo stated with relief. “From then on the responsible Navy staff had understood and accepted the coordinating role of USAID. Also the reporting in both directions improved from day to day.”

In some cases the military’s chosen approach had to be adapted or even cancelled entirely. For example, there was one plan in which the military would provide armed protection of Red Cross warehouses and Aloha Stadium (as a major shelter). This had to be completely taken out of the script, as the Red Cross never engages armed forces to secure personnel, vehicles or facilities.

Pinpointing needs and crowdmapping care

The exercise was also used to test newly digital tools, including ‘QuickNets’ – a further development of the crowdmapping application ‘Ushahidi’. Catherine Graham, Vice President of the worldwide digital disaster network ‘HumanityRoad’, which helped field test QuickNets, explains how: “Ushahidi[IP1]  was developed in 2009 to monitor mistreatment and killings in the Kenya elections. […] QuickNets further developed the application to be better usable in disasters. The goal is to not only get an overview about the requests for help or support on a map, but also to make it possible for relief organizations to work on such requests and mark them as e.g. ‘in process’ or ‘done’!

“For this exercise, 83 volunteers from 13 countries created more than 2000 entries in a 7-day pre-exercise and verified and geolocated them.” [IP2] During the exercise Navy forces were sent to a number of these locations to carry out the required rescue measures, e.g. locating and retrieving people buried under rubble or searching for hidden debris and potential damage in the harbour. Insights gained during the exercise were immediately taken care of and again put to the test in the ‘Pacific Endeavour’ military exercise in Singapore in August 2012. As soon as the tool is ready for use, it will be given back to Ushahidi, who will put it in the public domain as an open-source application.

The shared communication platform for all participants was offered by APAN (= All Partners Access Network), an internet portal of the American Department of Defense (DoD). APAN calls itself “a web-based collaboration platform that enables information sharing between the DoD and partner nations, foreign militaries, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, inter-agencies and individuals that do not have ready access to traditional DOD systems and networks.” APAN is basically a military grade social network, where users can store and access documents, situation reports, protocols and pictures, while instant messaging or discussing topics in a forum.

Digital tagging and medical tracking

In addition to the 500 or so personnel involved in the HA/DR exercise, another 1000 participants took part in a final disaster exercise on Hickam Airfield, Pearl Harbour. This involved military and non-military organizations like the ‘Health Association Hawaii’ (HAH) and its subsidiary HAH Emergency Services.

“HAH is a charity network that connects more than 115 healthcare organizations in Hawaii,” says Adria Estribou, HAH spokesperson. “Hospitals, retirement facilities, social services, air and land rescue, blood banks and laboratories are supported and coordinated in crisis management and preparedness.” They also provide voluntary and fully operational Disaster Medical Assistance Teams (DMAT).

Some of these DMATs took part in the exercise and set up an ‘Acute Care Module’ (ACM), comprising three tents able to treat around 50 patients per hour. They aim to be operational within four hours after being alerted. Another four tents were erected for the treatment of patients: in the first (triage tent) incoming patients are classified in three categories and transported to one of the other three tents according to their injuries:

  • Red = severe injuries, unable to walk
  • Yellow = light injuries, able to walk
  • Green = no injuries, psychosocial support

When arriving at the ACM, a patient receives an individually numbered card with a barcode. This is immediately scanned with a special device called HPATS (= Hawaii Patient Assessment Tracking System). Beyond the personal data saved in the digital patient file, a photo of the patient is also taken.

This is an additional way to make sure the right patient gets the right treatment,” explains Barbara, a nurse and today responsible for the registration and categorization of incoming patients. “If all works well, the data of the patients can be accessed by the hospital which is going to treat the patient. The broadcasting of the data runs via internet by an UMTS module, to which any of the devices are connected… The advantage is that the hospitals can prepare for their patients and the whereabouts of the patients can be checked. Also numbers and statistics are at hand very quickly.

Humanitarian, medical and military personnel agreed on the vital need for this exercise, so RIMPAC 2014 will again have an HA/DR component. Moreover, there are plans afoot to integrate psychosocial support by Navy chaplains and to improve communications with and towards affected populations, via both traditional media and new social networks. The future of disaster response and human survival will be, like so much else, a social experience.


About the Author:

Christoph Dennenmoser is a EMS paramedic for German Red Cross Rescue Services. He also volunteers for Red Cross as a Disaster Manager, and a Team Leader Urgent Needs at HumanityRoad. In addition, he contributes to IM EINSATZ, Rettungsdienst and Rettungsmagazin, German rescue and disaster management magazines. The connection between disaster management and information technology, particularly social media, is what raised his interest in the work of HumanityRoad and the subject of Disaster Communication. email: christoph [at] humanityroad.org Twitter: @sahnetaeter Skype: sahnetaeter

 Photo: Christoph Dennenmoser

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