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What Is Happening? What Is Needed?

In order to implement an effective emergency response, public authorities need to know what has happened and what is happening if the disaster is a continuing situation. At the simplest level, a fire official or policeman at the scene of an incident reports on the nature of the event and how many people are hurt or homeless. That information is given immediately to those responsible for providing medical and social services. In more complex situations, the information is much harder to acquire. Surveys to determine the extent of destruction and casualties take time, and the area may be impossible to reach. In some countries, the rescuers may not speak the same language or dialect as the people they are trying to reach, and the immediate demands on their services may preclude taking the time to get the information together and pass it on. Some disaster areas may be isolated for extended periods of time, or disasters may remain undetected for days.

In such situations, radios, either airborne or air-dropped into the community, have been of inestimable help. The information they pass along is more reliable than second-hand reports and speculation, but it must be as specific as possible. Authorities and relief agencies need to know exactly what supplies are needed. It does no good to send in medical teams and equipment to treat large numbers of casualties if the casualties are all dead, if the injured have only minor injuries, or if the people unexpectedly require immunization or vermin-control teams. If the main effort is search and rescue, then heavy duty equipment and experts in such activities should be sent instead of field hospitals. Those in charge need to know whether local supplies of food are adequate or more has to be brought in. In the latter case, they have to determine if food can be acquired and brought in. Housing needs must also be quickly detailed.

Unfortunately, the news media cannot provide relief agencies with concrete information on casualties, injuries, or damage. Generally, media reports are sketchy and tend to concentrate on the sensational--deaths and destruction. They provide little timely, comprehensive information, needed by relief agencies, on the number of survivors or areas untouched by the disaster. How many times did television show the same buildings ruined by the Mexico City earthquake, without reporting that most of the city was relatively undisturbed?

Whether aerial and satellite photography can quickly help define the needs of relief operations still requires a good deal of study. Will the technology be acceptable to the nations or people involved? And if a community has been buried or washed away, can a photo interpreter unfamiliar with the area tell what was there before?

Operational Needs and Problems

The more specific the information transmitted, the more helpful it is. Details enable the authorities to respond precisely instead of sending scattershot aid. Details about particular pesticides in danger of release, for example, can be valuable in determining the proper response.

Of primary importance is information about access to the disaster area. Remote sensing can help here, as emergency officials seek to determine whether bridges and roads are passable. Are area bridges and roads passable by four-wheel-drive vehicles only, or can heavy- duty trucks and ambulances get through? Is there electric power, water, fuel? Are body bags or vermin-control chemicals required? Is there a need for baby formula or specialized foods to meet cultural predilections? It is not unusual for well-meaning but misguided groups to fly in foods that the local populations just will not eat.

Relief agencies also need to know about survivors--where they are, who they are, whether they are injured. This information helps in assessing housing needs and in informing anxious relatives.

Transmitted information, unfortunately, does not automatically become usable information. Technical information, names of medicines, names of survivors that are passed along by radio or over the telephone must be transcribed by someone at the receiving end. The job is not only tedious, but can, especially if language is a problem, lead to many inaccuracies. Each emergency communications system, whether permanently installed or trucked in, should have a radio-teletype or facsimile machine to allow lists to be transmitted in hard copy. This means, of course, that at least one member of the communications team should be able to type or that typists fluent in the native tongue should be located.

While facsimile machines are private (and some governments object to this), voice radio presents the opposite problem. Voice radio is not very private, especially on bands that can be monitored by ham-radio operators or owners of citizens-band transceivers. One humorous result of this open exposure to relief agency messages occurred in Idaho after the Teton Dam collapse. A Red Cross shelter nurse radioed to headquarters that her shelter needed a supply of diapers--a routine message, but one that was overheard by every truck driver in the general area. All day and into the night, trucks kept pulling up at the shelter to offload boxes of disposable and regular diapers. Concerned truckers had cleaned out every supermarket and drugstore for miles around! While the incident was relatively harmless, consider the possibility that a routine report of one or two casualties could lead to the unnecessary diversion of rescue squads and medical teams.

Informing Victims and Public Officials

Emergency information systems often overlook the need to communicate with the disaster victims themselves and their public officials, especially in remote areas and low-income neighborhoods. These areas normally have little access to more formal community information networks. In smaller communities, public officials often have little real knowledge of emergency response and relief programs beyond their own fire departments and rescue squads.

Victims may have to receive information in a number of languages, and in simple, direct words and graphics. While the news media provide much of this communication, not everyone reads the newspaper or listens to radio. Relief agencies may need to turn to sound trucks or small planes with public address systems, special leaflets or posters, and broadcast public service announcements in a number of languages. Where illiteracy is common, face-to-face contact through clergymen or missionaries, village elders, officials, storekeepers, and other central figures needs to be encouraged.

No matter which means of communication is used, high priority should be given to reassuring victims that they are not forgotten and that help is on its way, telling them where and how to get it, and advising them of precautions that would protect family and belongings.

More formal communications may be necessary to reach public officials, especially since they are responsible for the well-being of the victims in their communities. They need to know immediately what help is available, from whom, and how their constituents can take advantage of these recovery resources. Otherwise, the officials may say with great emotion, "My people need everything--they have no food, no clothes, no place to stay" and set off a reaction of well-meant donations and unofficial relief efforts. Public officials or one of the emergency agencies in their community need to be quickly tied into whatever emergency communications network is established for the disaster.

Communication with public officials also means informing foreign governments, embassies in the affected country and abroad, national government emergency organizations, and the headquarters of voluntary relief groups. These organizations must have the same understanding of the nature of the disaster, the needs of the victims, the resources available, and what additional resources are needed from outside. With this information, these agencies can begin to coordinate an orderly, appropriate response. Embassies can inform inquiring nationals or their governments about what is needed, accept appropriate donations, and forward inquiries about people who may have been affected or reassure callers that their families have not been affected.

In international disasters, other nations need to know quickly what the affected government will accept in the way of help, emergency communications systems and equipment, overflight policies, customs routines and the like. Because disaster can be highly politicized, early warning of political or bureaucratic encumbrances can avert a lot of heartache and wasted effort.

In the United States a system has been established through which a designated person in each of the 50 governors' offices is quickly informed of the assistance needed in foreign disasters. This system was intended to ward off campaigns for used clothing and other donations that were inappropriate, unneeded, and costly to transport overseas in a timely manner. The system itself is used now and then; there are those who want it more formally organized.

Pleas by local officials, picked up by the media, can often compound an already difficult information problem. Similarly, ham radio operators relaying information to official agencies or the news media may provide the first information from an overseas disaster area, but it may be completely out of context. The same kind of misinformation may come out of domestic disaster areas in the United States, with the media focusing day after day on the same few damaged houses, giving the impression an entire town has been destroyed.

Overzealous news reporting does not mean the media should be censored; rather, it means they need to be linked more closely to sources of accurate information, and to be encouraged to double-check their information rather than settle for stark but inaccurate bad news. Furthermore, if reporters have access to satellite time, telephone or teleprinter circuits, they must be made to understand that they cannot expect to use them to the exclusion of relief workers.

Another media-related problem that is generally overlooked in emergency response planning is the rubbernecking crowds that gather after disaster news is reported on the air. After reports of two incidents in New York City--an expected difficult landing at Kennedy Airport and an explosion on a Brooklyn pier--so many sightseers responded that emergency vehicles could not get through. At the airport, spectators overflowed onto the runways while they waited for the airliner to try its emergency landing. New York City police later tried to get the media to agree to a 30-minute delay in reporting, which would give the police time to secure emergency routes and take other necessary steps. No agreement was reached, and the problem remains.

A final major problem is information overload. Computerized technology can absorb masses of information and disgorge it on command, but can emergency managers deal with the information onslaught? Do they really need to? Does information technology need to be tailored to actual information needs instead of answering the technologists' desire for more and more capacity?

In 1977, a storm named Doria moved up the East Coast of the United States. The Weather Service's state meteorologist for New Jersey worked around the clock putting information about the storm's progress, rainfall amounts, and other information on to the teletype circuits going from the state capital to emergency operations centers throughout the state. Then he went to sleep, exhausted. The next day he decided to visit a number of emergency operations centers to see how his output had been used. In center after center, he found the floor littered with paper that had rolled off the machine, apparently unread. He realized that once the storm had hit, emergency managers could respond directly to the amount of water in their streets. They did not need more data from him. He had overloaded them. Similarly, broadcast weather information that repeatedly says "stay tuned for further information" at some point becomes irrelevant to listeners who should have already taken shelter or other protective steps.

The current overload classic is Title III's requirements for chemical reporting. The Act requires that communities invest in a wide variety of systems to absorb the information on thousands of Material Safety Data Sheets and other paperwork, and then make the information instantly available when fire crews respond to a chemical spill, or when victims of the spill reach a hospital.

Each new development in data technology makes even more disaster information available to emergency managers, but its real usefulness is rarely assessed. Quality, not quantity, should be the key.

Comprehensive, accurate, timely information gets help for the victims in a coordinated, effective manner. Without it, relief teams may waste time, effort, specialists, supplies and equipment, or send in the wrong kind of help. At times, the best information will be action-oriented--get out of the way, fast, before impending disaster. At other times, it may not only expedite needed help, but do so without provoking well-intentioned excesses or wasted effort.

One of the worst examples of unneeded help was the occasion when the U.S. government sent vast food supplies to Guatemala earthquake victims. Unfortunately, arrival of the American supplies coincided with Guatemala's own harvest, creating a secondary disaster by usurping the local farmers' markets. This was worse, in its way, than other slip-ups--medicines with labels in a language that could not be read by local doctors, and mountains of unneeded clothing that had to be trucked, at great cost, out of the Hurricane Camille landfall after that relief operation.

Good information helps. Bad information hurts. Both are disseminated through the same technologies.

While this paper has focused on information content, emergency relief agencies have worked to acquire useful information technology. The American Red Cross, for example, was the first to experiment with the use of small, portable satellite uplinks that could be carried or dropped into disaster areas where communication was a problem. In several exercises, information from hand-held and mobile radios was relayed by a truck-mounted satellite dish to national Red Cross headquarters. In another project, x-ray pictures of a patient were transmitted from the jungle to the hospital ship Hope and from the ship to a radiologist in New York City for diagnosis.

While satellite communication is not always needed, portable suitcase-sized units should be available in many major domestic or foreign disasters. Satellite capability might be most useful in situations like post-earthquake Mexico City, where live pictures of rescue operations could be viewed instantly by rescue experts in other countries. The experts could serve as "remote consultants," advising by voice transmission as the rescue mission goes on. Part of an ideal system would be some kind of teleprinter or facsimile transmission unit that can be linked to the satellite or other lines or radios; where language problems exist, some kind of limited desktop-publishing capability would help in printing information for victims in a variety of translations.

Developers of high-tech emergency communications systems must keep in mind the cost of equipment and the time required to get it in place. Especially those relief agencies that depend on public contributions must pay attention to cost-effectiveness. If, for example, it takes 24 hours--including truck or helicopter transportation--to get a satellite uplink into place and set up, is the uplink cost justified? This question is critical, especially if less sophisticated systems could handle the immediate emergency. For many Red Cross societies, existing links are adequate. Bringing in new systems would be redundant, especially where only a few messages are sent in a week. Of course, the bottom line is that any communications system must be up and running very quickly if all who need it are to get the right information at the right time.