The Role of Technology in the Disaster Management Cycle
Preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation. The four widely accepted steps of the disaster management cycle are designed to aid emergency managers plan for and minimise the impact of major incidents. From localised events to national disasters, these steps are used across the entire crisis management community.
Fires, flooding, electrical faults and other uncontrollable external forces all have the capacity to devastate a community within the blink of an eye. And these events don’t just impact the local community, but businesses too. While such scenarios may seem unlikely, it is important for organisations to consider their duty of care to employees — ensuring procedures are in place to both evacuate and keep staff safe, no matter where they are.
Technology plays an important function in every step of the cycle, enhancing the capability of managers to co-ordinate an effective emergency response. In this article, we examine the role of technology across preparation, response, recovery and mitigation stages — with a specific focus on maintaining effective communication.
This stage of the disaster management cycle involves making arrangements, plans and procedures for various emergencies should they be required. To be fully prepared, it is important to have policies in place before an incident is even anticipated. If preparations are started after a potential crisis has been identified, there will unlikely be enough time to ensure the correct technology, information and procedures are in place. Specifically, this stage should involve:
- The creation and testing of emergency plans for all foreseeable scenarios
- Training & education of staff, management and communities
- Sharing relevant, helpful information that ensures an effective response
So, how exactly can technology benefit emergency preparation? To answer this question, two key applications must be explored. The first is modelling (or forecasting), which utilises computing power to understand what could happen in different scenarios, likely paths of evacuation and the impact of different rules on outcomes.
The austrian modelling system TAMOS provides one example of how such simulations can provide practical information. The system, developed in 2001, is used to predict the dispersion of nuclear material in the event of a power plant failure. Understanding the expansion of radioactive material throughout a site is vital to building an evacuation plan that keeps staff out of direct danger.
Secondly, technology also provides an important channel to distribute relevant training and educational material to staff. While paper manuals, emails and training sessions will not be replaced anytime soon — there is certainly room for improvement. For example, documentation distribution systems are capable of sending new policies to staff and monitoring whether or not they have been read. Reminders and further actions can be set for individuals who have not read relevant information, ensuring everyone is prepared and has access to the same degree of knowledge.
The second stage of the disaster management cycle, response, encompasses actions taken during and in the immediate aftermath of an emergency. In some cases, action can be taken before a foreseeable incident occurs — such as severe weather.
In principle, the response stage is designed to safeguard staff and minimise disruption. If the third stage, recovery, aims to return businesses & communities to a state of normality then the goal of the initial response is to limit how far outside of normal boundaries an incident is capable of moving the needle.
For a response to be effective, there must be some recognition that conventional channels of communication may not be sufficient. For this reason, business continuity and disaster recovery teams must be clear on the line of communication that is used throughout the initial stages of an emergency.
Therefore any technology that is used during the response (such as Crisis Centre for mass notification and alerting) must meet a few key criteria. Both hardware and software must sit outside of day-to-day IT systems to ensure that any events that affect regular operation do not impact the recovery effort. This can involve using off-premise servers, specific emergency devices and even separate emergency electrical circuits to power back-up devices.
Additionally, software must be easy-to-use in order to remove barriers to communication and guide individuals to make the right decisions in high pressure situations. Obviously, this means UX plays a vital role in software design — even moreso than in regular software development. To support this, end users must also be familiarised with the systems, through either training or regular test scenarios.
Recovery is the long tail of the disaster management cycle, measured in months or years rather than the hours & days that an initial response is carried out over. During this period, a co-ordinated effort is made to support those affected through the restoration of infrastructure as well as economic, social and psychological well-being.
Disaster recovery must consider not only infrastructure — but social, economic & psychological effects.
Depending on the nature of the emergency, this can be a complicated process that involves a wide range of individuals — from medical staff to construction firms and advisors. Managing such a substantive project is no easy task — compounded by the fact that every day of reduced operation is costing either the organisation or community. This creates a paradox in which there must be an understanding that recovery takes time, but there is also significant pressure to minimise such time.
It is important to utilise disaster specific management software throughout this phase in order to effectively distribute, track and manage tasks that must be completed. Access to a single dashboard that presents a current snapshot of recovery progress is vital to planning next steps and maintaining a realistic, but optimistic view of the future.
The final stage of the cycle highlights the importance of a complete strategy. Similar to preparedness, mitigation involves taking actions that reduce the likelihood of another disaster occurring. These actions should be undertaken constantly, but have particular importance in the immediate aftermath of a crisis when a community or organisation is vulnerable.
It is especially important to learn from previous disaster management cycles and pinpoint not only what can be done to prevent future emergencies, but also the inefficiencies and areas for improvement throughout an iteration. Documenting and regularly reviewing progress towards improvement is core to mitigation and emergency response planning. However, it is not enough to just plan. These plans must then be implemented and communicated to relevant individuals — bringing the cycle full circle.
While there are a number of variations of this cycle in existence, the core underlying actions remain the same. Further, a basic understanding of the responsibilities of business continuity professionals at every stage is vital to an effective response.