As one of the largest disaster recovery organisations in the world, American Red Cross responds to an emergency every 8 minutes.
From small house fires to multi-state natural disasters, the organisation partners with hundreds of government authorities to understand where they’re needed, before dispatching a volunteer army of more than 40,000 to provide affected communities with clean water, safe shelter and meals.
The organisation recently completed a digital transformation strategy aimed at optimising their service delivery. Central to this program was establishing a world-class geospatial solution, to guide their operations and generate new efficiencies.
The award-winning GIS solution, known as ‘RC View’, synthesises thousands of federal, state and local data sources into one dynamic picture that informs the decisions and actions of an 80,000+ strong workforce – as well as an extended network of government agencies and community partners.
The insights derived from the GIS solution are vital during large-scale national disaster relief operations, in everyday response to home fires, and in preparedness efforts for local communities throughout the United States.
Ahead of his visit to Australia this November for the Australian Esri User Conference, American Red Cross Senior Director Brian Keenum gave Australian GIS in emergency response expert Mark Wallace a behind-the-scenes look at the revolutionary approach to disaster response and recovery.
Mark Wallace: When embarking on your digital transformation strategy, what role did you see for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology at American Red Cross?
Brian Keenum: American Red Cross has been using GIS technology tools to support its operations through creating maps of territories and providing situational awareness for around 20 years, but it was only around three years ago that the organisation made a concerted effort to digitally transform its GIS. We set out to create a truly dynamic and modern system that could inform all of operations, by ensuring we were making the right decisions and providing absolute operational transparency to our various stakeholders.
We’ve been successful in achieving that and were humbled to receive the Esri President’s Award from Jack Dangermond. But its not just a testament of the hard work the folks here have done. It’s a reflection of the hard-work of our extended network of partners – including government departments, community organisations and technology providers – who provide us with the additional data, content and capabilities we need to make a difference.
Mark Wallace: Tell us about your flagship GIS solution, “RC View”…
Brian Keenum: RC View is an enterprise portal that provides broad access to GIS technology to people across our organisation and volunteer network, from directors, to operations to volunteers.
It is our key platform for managing and analysing our own data, as well as data from other government agencies like National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOOA) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The insights the technology generates are absolutely critical to our operations on the ground, as well as for our key strategic decision-makers.
We run several programs that are centred around this technology, but from the perspective of a day-to-day basis, we use our GIS solution to provide mapping and analytics capabilities for our service delivery teams. This includes planning and executing service delivery during crises and in response to natural disasters. It’s a critical system for understanding in real-time what the potential impact of a crisis may be, who will be affected, how we should respond – and how we can send resources to the right place as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Mark Wallace: How has the technology strengthened your ability to mobilise your workforce during response and recovery?
Brian Keenum: Mobile GIS – and being able to capture and share data and analysis on the fly – has been a very powerful enabler for Red Cross. For example, at our evacuation shelters, we developed a program called RC Collect, which uses Survey 123 for ArcGIS to give our workers the ability to electronically check-in people and record their details, as they arrive. This feeds into our RC View system so we can record and look back on the data too. This gives us more visibility as to the demographics of who we are helping and reasons they may be staying at the shelter and unable to get back to their homes.
This was all paper-based previously, so the efficiencies gained have been huge. Also just having that information available in a dynamic map-based view makes it easier to connect the dots. For example, if we can clearly see there is a large percentage of elderly people at a shelter, then we may need to organise geriatric services, certain medications or disability services. If there’s a significant number of kids present who are typically at school or daycare, then we need to arrange suitable entertainment and activities for them. The RC Collect app has already been a game changer – and down the track, we’re also investigating extending this capability to enable shelf check-in.
Mark Wallace: From an efficiency perspective, how has the technology enabled Red Cross to work smarter?
Brian Keenum: We can clearly see it’s taking fewer people to perform our service delivery now we have the right technology in place and we are reacting a lot more quickly. We also have a detailed understanding of exactly what resources are required to perform a task. This of course translates to less wasted time and money, because we can deploy the right number of people from the outset, instead of just deploying everyone and realising later that it was too many people.
The great thing with this technology, is we are constantly capturing insights into how we operate to ensure we continually optimise our operations.
For example, we are now collecting metrics into how long people may be spending in shelters and making inferences as to why this may be, which helps us determine strategies for getting them back on their feet sooner. These kinds of insights are so valuable – and only made possible by capturing and analysing this data as we receive it.
Mark Wallace: Aside from response and recovery, how do you use GIS technology for preparedness and mitigation?
Brian Keenum: We have a number of evolving programs in place to support our preparedness activities. For example, there is our home fire campaign which involves us installing smoke alarms and helping families plan and respond to evacuation alerts. Our GIS solution provides critical insights into where we need to go to install alarms or run fire safety awareness programs. It does this by capturing and mapping our own home fire data records as to where we have previously installed alarms or responded to an incident, as well as data provided from other fire departments or community groups. Then we have social vulnerability indexes to identify areas most at risk of fire incidents. By viewing and analysing this data through a geographic filter, we can clearly understand neighborhoods that require education through awareness campaigns or even door knocking.
Beyond understanding where we need to install smoke alarms, it also helps our disaster action teams respond to every home fire in the US. Where appropriate we offer financial assistance to folks who can’t be in their homes due to damage and who needs help getting back on their feet.
Mark Wallace: You have hundreds of thousands of volunteers and staff to manage – how do you ensure they gain value from your GIS?
Brian Keenum: We have 80,000 people in our core ‘RC View’ GIS portal, and 40,000 disaster relief volunteers who could each potentially access our GIS solution. The challenge is there are different use cases for each of these users – some people may just use “RC View” to visualise where key resources are located, whereas others use “RC Collect” for disaster assessment or shelter registrations.
Therefore, educating our teams and building capacity is a core priority. Increasing user adoption is key to the success of the entire program. We’ve innovated to create this game-changing solution, but now it’s about building our capacity to use the system to its full potential.
To do this, we established the “RC View Academy” which is a program with three tiers for learning: beginner, intermediate and advanced. Beginner is very self-guided, such as educating yourself on how to get into the system and make a map. The intermediate level includes more self-development as well as live online training to take them to the next level on the tools we use. And then there’s advanced, where we train the high performers. This is a lot more hands on – for example we recently sent 15 folks to Esri headquarters for an intensive 4-day course on Insights for ArcGIS and ArcGIS Pro. Fostering their advanced skills is critical to helping us engage our workforce and build innovation and strength.
Explore more of Brian Keenum's blogs here.