In its efforts to effectively respond and recover from large-scale crises, Australia’s emergency services authorities are increasingly focused on ensuring technology systems are interoperable and primed to support multi-agency missions.

In part two of this three-part series, American Red Cross Senior Director Brian Keenum speaks with Australian GIS in emergency response expert Mark Wallace about the importance of interoperability and collaboration across agencies during crises – and shares how this approach has been the difference between life and death in emergencies, such as Hurricane Harvey.

Mark Wallace: How important has it been for American Red Cross to create a solution that enables seamless inter-agency collaboration and transparency?  

Brian Keenum: One of the key drivers behind our GIS solution is enabling inter-agency collaboration and transparency to ensure we can all work off the same map, so to speak, when responding to an emergency situation. This is critical, not only in ensuring we are working from the most accurate information to make informed decisions, but also to ensure we are operating efficiently, without duplication or wasting time or resources. This has been the most important change our GIS solution has brought about – and it has really amplified our ability to effectively help the people who need it the most.

Mark Wallace: Can you provide us with a recent example of effective inter-agency collaboration in action?

Brian Keenum: The hurricanes that struck in fall of 2017 – including Hurricanes Harvey and Irma – were the deadliest we’d seen in more than a decade, and the costliest in US history. Response was on an unprecedented scale and this is where the value of having a strong platform for cross-agency collaboration really came to the fore. We were lucky to have our RC View GIS solution in place and ready to go.

For example, in terms of assessing damage and providing support to those who lost their homes, we connected and consumed various modelling data sources from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), such as current and historical rainfall, predicted flooding and rain gauge depths and mapped and analysed this in real-time to determine where our services where needed, as it was happening.

We had never had that transparency before. We used to have to wait a week or two until flood waters were fully subsided then assess each individual house. But now, the GIS gives us real-time data about the service delivery needed. All of those models – like wind gauges and flood models – came from government partners and were able to be viewed and accessed seamlessly.

Mark Wallace: Has the system been used to support the current wildfire crisis in California?

Brian Keenum: Yes, absolutely. It’s been used to support a number of efforts across our different arms. This is the largest fire in US history and therefore having an ongoing view of the situation has been crucial to ensuring our service delivery teams can help where we are needed.

For example, we use the system to manage our canteen program for fire fighters and take care of them with the resources they need. We use it to provide assistance to shelter folks that are displaced or evacuated, and to digitally check-in people via tablet devices as they arrive at these centres.

We also use the system to connect with other community resources and partners to ensure the right feeding, sheltering and spiritual care programs are in place at the right locations. Finally, we will use the system later on once we know the absolute scope and size of response, to underpin our financial assistance programs.

Mark Wallace: Outside of large-scale crises, how do you typically work with local authorities, like fire brigades?

Brian Keenum: Working closely with local fire brigades is a key part of our day-to-day operations – and how effective this is really depends on where you are in the country.

The United States has thousands of jurisdictions across the country and every one of them is different.

Fortunately, most fire brigades are very proactive in their interactions with us, and we normally find out right as a fire or emergency happens. The fire departments call the local chapter of the Red Cross, we record details in RC View and our volunteers are dispatched.

Mark Wallace: What’s your advice to agencies struggling to establish systems that enable cross-organisation collaboration?

Brian Keenum: Inter-agency operability is something we talk about a lot in our world and a capability we have been striving hard to achieve. Ultimately the advice I would share with others, is you need to be open to changing the organisational culture. Changes need to be made to policy and protocol – and everyone must come along for that journey to allow for data to be shared across agencies.

Once the doors have been opened and true collaboration and transparency occurs, there’s no measure to the benefit of that. It’s a game changer. It’s vital – and I don’t think people realise what they’re getting from that until a disaster strikes.

Mark Wallace: Aside from emergency response and recovery, is GIS used across other areas of Red Cross?

Brian Keenum: We have a vision to use GIS across all areas of our organisation to connect all our silos – from fleet management to facilities. Then there are our various other arms, such as blood donation.

GIS would offer great value here in terms of identifying areas in need of awareness drives; or highlighting neighbourhoods which have higher concentrations of certain blood groups or are at-risk of shortage. Nothing concrete is happening yet, but it’s all in the future.

Then there are the international arms of Red Cross. Even though we collaborate with them in times of disaster, there’s a long way to go and this is an area we’d like to invest more in.

What we’re seeing with emergencies of a global nature in more developing regions, is there’s lots of crowdsourced data being collected and used than what we’re used to in the States. A lot of the infrastructure and GIS tools aren’t there and they’re using more ‘guerrilla tactics’ in terms of how they respond and help people.

There are some really innovative and cool approaches being used by these countries, and in addition to sharing what we do well – which is establishing a robust foundational framework – I think there’s an opportunity for us to learn from these countries too.

Explore more of Brian Keenum's blogs here.   

This blog is part of a three-part series. Read other interviews with Brian, including:  The GIS solution that’s changing traditional emergency response & recovery.

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