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Crisis Response Journal Crisis Response Journal

Using interconnected communication systems and navigation to facilitate rescue response

Posted on 28th November 2017 at 21:50pm

Increasing individual preparedness during times of disaster by engaging and empowering communities has demonstrated improved outcomes in national resilience and security, writes Frida Velcani.

US Coast Guard personnel and volunteers from the Cajun Navy volunteers evacuate elderly residents trapped by flood water in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey August 30, 2017 in Houston, Texas, USA (Planetpix/Alamy Live News)

The traditional approach to managing natural and human-caused disasters has often relied on government to provide relief services; however, there are many limitations and challenges that governments face. These can create significant gaps in disaster management and leave many vulnerable populations stranded.

Changes in community demographics and technology have significantly affected the complexity of disaster management when considering vulnerable populations like the elderly, those who are disabled living in the community or those living in vulnerable locations. These variables have created overwhelming barriers for governments in their efforts to provide effective disaster relief, making it crucial to educate and prepare individuals to be able to respond during large scale catastrophes when the government cannot.

This concept and framework for individual preparedness has been defined by FEMA in the US and is known as the Whole Community Approach to emergency management. The basic premise of the Whole Community Approach is to engage the entire societal capacity in the collective action of locating recovery resources, communicating resource availability, and providing assistance in an attempt to avoid overwhelming government resources and capabilities.

Innovative technologies that use communication and navigation systems to link members of the community have helped co-ordinate rescue missions based on these principles. Technologies from a virtual walkie-talkie app to a satellite GPS messenger, are helping to underpin a collaborative community emergency response system.

An app called Zello has recently been a catalyst for collaborative rescue efforts; the use of this app saw a surge during recent disasters, including Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. With a ‘push to talk’ feature, users can turn their modern interface into a two-way ‘social radio’. Users can choose to send pictures, communicate in private chats, or send voice messages on public channels to speak to groups of people simultaneously. All they have to do is push a button to connect instantly with people domestically and across international borders. A multilingual feature can also translate voice messages into 22 different languages – a useful tool for culturally and linguistically diverse cities and suburbs.

Thousands of rescue teams and bystanders mobilised at the cries of victims heard on voice messages posted on Zello channels specifically designated for rescue missions. The human voice provides invaluable critical information and lends to greater problem solving in the efforts to locate and identify a victim’s condition.

The Cajun Navy, Texas Volunteer Rescue/Support and the Harvey Animal Rescue channels are examples of groups that have been created on the Zello app to allow for bottom-up emergency response; these channels have created one common place for victims and rescuers to easily connect. Expanding the opportunities for humanitarian aid ultimately helps relieve the burden of high demand from government rescue organisations and saves lives that may not have been saved otherwise.

According to chief executive of Zello, Bill Moore, user sessions increased 600 per cent over the week of Hurricane Harvey’s impact. Although the app requires a WiFi or data connection, it can also operate in poorly serviced areas such as those covered by 2G networks. 

Shortly following Hurricane Harvey, Zello provided an additional level of preparedness among family members for the ensuing storm Irma. It was a source of hope, giving disaster victims the security of being socially connected, even if prospects appeared dark and isolating. The app not only turned ordinary people into heroes, but empowered desperate flood victims to reclaim their fate from rising floodwaters and other potentially devastating outcomes.

Meanwhile, the SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger serves a similar purpose of restoring agency to individuals who find themselves in dangerous circumstances. With the help of orbiting commercial satellites, users can instantly connect to friends and family “virtually anywhere in the world, even where cell phones don’t,” according to SPOT.

Subscribers can use this pocket-sized technology to send their GPS location, as well as deliver emails, text messages or emergency notifications to emergency responders and loved ones.

This multifunctional, handheld device can perform a variety of tasks via several buttons. The SOS function notifies emergency service agencies of a person’s location and their critical need for assistance. The Help function can be used for less critical situations, such as notifying personal contacts of a need for assistance. The Check-in/OK button assures ten pre-determined contacts that the user is safe and sends them their GFP location. The SPOT device can also track a user’s location by marking a reference point or sending messages from specific locations to predetermined contacts. An additional service can be activated for a 24/7 roadside vehicle assistance programme, which is also functional in even the most remote locations.

Technologies that have streamlined communication and navigation through interconnected global networks have demonstrated incredible utility in emergency situations. These advanced user-friendly applications and devices are the future answer for closing the relief gaps that exist during major catastrophes. They allow simple accessibility for a layperson to reach out for assistance, or help those in need within their own communities. They can locate nearby and accessible resources to both expedite rescue response and improve the specificity of help that is delivered.

The individuals who are summoned to respond to these situations are, arguably, the best at: “Assessing the needs of their respective communities and determining the best ways to organise and strengthen their assets, capacities, and interests,” according to Department of Homeland Security.

It is crucial that we continue to develop the Whole Community Approach in emergency management by preparing, educating and providing communities with the tools they need to orchestrate local rescue efforts.                       


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