Lessons Learned Improve Disaster Recovery Tactics

February 28, 2012
By Maryann Lawlor
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Responding to an emergency is just as crucial-and as technically complicated as-preventing one. Members of the final panel for the DHS 2012 Information Technology Industry Day discussed the importance of communications capabilities to mitigate the effects of a manmade or natural disaster and restore normalcy to an area. Damon Penn, assistant administrator, National Continuity Programs Directorate , FEMA, related that restoring communications so that disaster victims can contact their families can help in two ways. First, family members can pick up victims and take them to a safer location. Second, the ability for victims to contact family members via phone means one less call first responders need to make or accept during critical response hours. Penn pointed out that, in addition to resilient communication capabilities, first responders desperately need technologies that can assist in other stages of disaster operations. "The most difficult and important solutions are needed in the assessment stage," he stated. Speaking directly to industry attendees, he added, "Anything you can to do make it easier would be good." Holding up their smartphones, many of the panelists recommended that the entire approach to finding technical solutions that can be used in responding to and immediately after a disaster strike may be better served with a new business model. Rather than trying to predict requirements and going through a long acquisition process, perhaps reaching out to the innovators who create apps would be a more efficient process. "The apps approach solved problems you didn't know you had. People with solutions come to you," Penn pointed out. For example, shoppers didn't know they needed an easier way to compare prices until someone developed an app that enables them to do it from their smartphone, he illustrated. One of the most devastating disasters in recent time was the oil spill in the Gulf  in April 2010, but it yielded many valuable lessons learned, Capt. James Cash, USCG, said. The maritime domain is so vast that it is nearly impossible to monitor it entirely all the time. However, homeland security, military and commercial would all benefit from a common operational picture (COP). The challenge is to create one that would exist solely on classified networks yet allow the government to share COP information over unclassified networks with other organizations assisting in disaster recovery. In addition, the Coast Guard itself needs the ability to be resilient, Capt. Cash added. For example, while Rescue 21 equipment was designed to stay up and running during the peak of a natural disaster, some obvious but not planned-for occurrences-such as a tree falling across a power line-caused unexpected problems. As a result, the Coast Guard has put into place a back-up communications satellite system to ensure continued communication capabilities.

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