Saturday, February 23, 2013

Mass Care Common Operating Picture

We have been talking and having conference calls about a Mass Care COP lately. COP is short for Common Operating Picture, the quaint and curious concept that the many decision makers within the many agencies involved in a decision should be making their many decisions based on the same set of information.

There were multiple mass care operating pictures in New York City during Sandy but they had little in common. The reason for this was not a conspiracy of incompetence but a reflexion of the difficulties facing the mass care practitioners trying to direct resources in a large, urban environment.

The American Red Cross had 120 Emergency Response Vehicles (ERV) performing fixed and mobile feeding in NYC and on Long Island. The ERV crews were volunteers from places like Kansas and Indiana and Georgia. They knew as much about NYC geography as I did, and I was discovering (to my eternal amazement) that Coney Island wasn't an island, but a peninsula. I could be standing in Queens and someone could give me an address and I wouldn't know whether it was 3 blocks or 3 miles away (assuming that I even knew where I was).

That's what a GPS is for, you say. But a GPS doesn't solve this problem. A GPS tells the user how to get from Point A to Point B, not the relative positions of Points A through Z. The people directing the ERVs in Sandy weren't receiving one or two reports of people needing feeding, they were receiving dozens. Not being from the area, they couldn't look at the addresses and know if some of the requests were clustered together. As far as they knew they were all separate entities, each clamoring for a limited number of a precious resource.

Normally, this isn't such a problem, but Sandy was different; the impacted area was large, urban, and densely populated. There was a disconnect between those who could identify the location of the need, and those who could direct the resources to meet that need. Just call them on the cell phone, you say. Well, the cell phones don't always work in a disaster, and this is not a point to point communication problem. This is an information processing problem. 

The solution, of course, is to collect all of the information and display it electronically on a map. The technology to do this is well developed and inexpensive. In our computer literate society information is collected, put in the right format, and transmitted to the correct depository millions of times of day. How hard could this be? What problem could keep us from making this happen?

The biggest problem of all: We've never done it this way before.

But we're going to fix it. We've got it fix it. In the upcoming years the American Red Cross will be fielding a new fleet of Emergency Response Vehicles with tracking devices that will convert them into blinking dots on an electronic map. The Salvation Army has already placed similar devices on a portion of their fleet of canteens. Each agency will convert their information into data feeds that can be assembled and displayed on a map along with shelter locations, field kitchen sites, power outage data, damage assessment reports and all the other bits of information that are pouring into emergency operations centers.

But all of that won't happen by this summer. And I am all about what can you do for me now. What will be ready when the Big Storms start swelling on the satellite pictures? For the last 12 years my New Year's resolution every January 1 is to get ready for a Category 5 hurricane to hit Miami. What have I got against Miami? Nothing. That's my worst case scenario. And that's the standard against which I have to compare my level of preparations.

Knowing my job, people ask me all the time about my opinion on the latest forecast for the hurricane season. Because of my job I am well aware of the hurricane season forecasts but they have no impact on my preparations. Regardless of the seasonal forecast, I have to get ready for the Cat 5 hitting Miami. As June 1 approaches my preparations grow more frantic. 

I asked a friend why this was so and he said, "You've seen the elephant."

Because I've seen the elephant we're going to jury rig some kind of mass care COP for this summer. We've already figured something out. We will test the contraption at this year's National Hurricane Exercise in Tallahassee in June.

And then, if the Big One to Florida comes this summer, we will use it.

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