|New Approaches to New Realities (University of Wisconsin / Universidad de Wisconsin, 1996, 508 p.)|
|Theme ONE: Identification and Planning of Emergency Settlement|
This paper was prepared by Jeffrey S. Klenk for InterWorks. In addition to the resources listed in the paper, the following people provided significant contributions:
Peter Anderson - formerly of the Centre for International Research on Communication and Information Technologies in Australia, is currently Assistant Professor at the School of Communications and the Associate Director at the Center for Policy Research on Science & Technology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Maxx Dilley - is currently the Famine Mitigation Science Advisor at the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance of the United States Agency for International Development in Washington, DC.
This paper is a synthesis of the efforts of all of those cited above and as such does not express the viewpoint of any single resource, contributor or organization.
With the spread of complex emergencies worldwide and the almost instantaneous response of the international media, emergency managers are routinely expected today to respond with immediacy and with appropriately-designed programs which address the short, medium, and long-term needs of emergency settlements.
As a result of this public and donor demand for immediacy and efficacy of response, the importance of good information management and communications has increased exponentially. Key decisions are often made thousands of miles from the emergency site by managers trying to respond simultaneously to the needs of governments, private donors, boards of directors, headquarters and field staff, the media and a myriad of other respondents - not to mention the actual needs of the affected population itself. Good information management has become essential to this decision-making process. In its absence, the emergency response is slowed, or worse, bad decisions with life-threatening consequences are taken.
Emergency response agencies have, as a result of this need for quick information, committed tremendous resources to develop sophisticated, high-tech information management systems consisting of worldwide computer networks and data transmission infrastructure. Agency decisions to make such commitments - while often justifiable given the increased capacity to speed information to managers - should always consider that information management entails not only high-tech solutions to information needs. Information systems necessarily include such low-tech components as local staff experience, maps on the wall, the telephone numbers of indigenous NGOs, and the large black ledgers found in commodity warehouses throughout the world.
Too often, the desire to be on the cutting edge of technology means that these other, less esoteric forms of information systems are not viewed as worthy of the emergency managers time or interest. The enthusiasm for learning to manipulate new software systems quickly overshadows the need for the manager to sit down with the shipping clerk, the monitor, and the warehouseman to ensure that the ledgers and stock cards and waybill systems are solid, and that local staff are fully trained in their use.
A successful emergency intervention demands that emergency managers comprehend all aspects of the information management system defined as the policies, procedures, and resources (human, material, and technological) used to (1) collect and analyze data and (2) produce, disseminate, and store information arising from those data. Likewise, emergency managers must understand the available systems of communications; defined as the policies procedures, and resources used to send messages, orders, requests, and other types of information.
1. The goal of information management in an emergency is to provide information in the right form to the right person at the right time to facilitate decision-making.
Despite astounding improvements in the speed of communications technology, the issue of getting the right information at the right time to the right person continues to be a concern. Although communications tools today can instantaneously transmit volumes of data around the world, these tools are often not in the right place when disaster threatens or strikes. Even more problematic is assuring the organizational capacity to turn these volumes of data into good, meaningful information and then to disseminate this information to the appropriate authority so that required and timely actions can be taken.
2. Information systems should be designed to fulfill first and foremost the needs of those decision-makers who are most directly responsible for managing the emergency response in the field and for coordinating that response with other emergency agencies.
These decision-makers are generally closer to the actual emergency settlement area than are their headquarters superiors. Nevertheless, many information systems continue to be designed with the headquarters operation in mind - at the expense of these field decision-makers. As a result, field staff end up spending a great deal of their time and energy responding to the demands imposed by this headquarters-oriented information system - to the detriment of field staff and the population affected by the emergency.
3. The design of management information systems must consider user skills, the resources available for training, and the potential for ongoing system support. The close involvement of users is essential throughout the design phase.
Designers must consider the organizations capacity to use new techniques and new information. In this sense, users must be represented in all phases of information systems development. Given the organizational interdependencies of a well-functioning information system, it is critical that all likely users of the system define and express their needs to the designers/technicians. Hesitant users or, worse those who have been neglected during the design stages can, despite executive mandates or appeals to reason, easily impede the free flow of information within the organization. Bringing all users on-board is, therefore, always time well spent.
4. Information sharing depends on the adoption of commons standards by those organizations providing similar assistance within the emergency settlement
Health, nutrition, security - these are all emergency response sectors for which like-minded agencies should conceivably adopt common standards to enable meaningful measurements of program impact. A willingness to adopt standards and measure progress implies as well a willingness to share information concerning beneficiary status, techniques of intervention, and agency strengths and weaknesses.
5. Information and the systems to manage that information should be regarded as strategic resources which assist the emergency response agency to deliver assistance in a timely, effective manner.
Telecommunications and information policies should not be instituted in a vacuum; they should help an organization to fulfill its long-term goals. Their appropriate use should assist emergency respondents to plan and respond on a more timely and effective basis.
6. The establishment of new communications systems is always a costly endeavor. In an emergency settlement, existing communications channels should be used - assuming they are still functioning.
Functioning implies that the channels are sufficient for the timely and effective implementation of the planned emergency response. In the absence of a functioning system, a new communications system should be considered as the greater transmission speed and efficacy are likely to serve the emergency response well.
7. The policies and procedures of emergency response agencies should be configured so as to expedite the flow of information on the emergency settlement through the organization to the appropriate decision-makers.
Information on the emergency should be given highest priority by emergency response organizations. Emergency procedures should include a system for prioritizing both incoming and outgoing information.
8. Emergency response agencies should view the media as a potentially effective communications channel for information on the emergency settlement Agencies should develop formal and informal ties with media representatives to facilitate use of this channel.
Under cooperative agreements, media representatives can facilitate links between field officers in emergency settlements and their headquarters. In exchange, disaster specialists might provide emergency management training or other assistance to journalists prior to and during crises. Such cooperation benefits affected populations though the increase in understanding of a better-informed general public.
Determining user needs
The design of the information system must be carefully targeted towards enhancing the job performance of the end-users: e.g., the affected population, emergency settlement field staff, top management, host governments, donors, and the public. It is essential throughout the design stages to involve all likely end-users of the information management system through regular meetings, informal interviews, and questionnaires to ensure that the system can in fact meet their information needs. Efforts to satisfy additional reporting requests after the system is already up and running are likely either to fail outright or succeed only at great additional cost. Some of the information needs which should be considered from the outset follow.
Field staff: Information needs of field staff will necessarily include detailed information on:
· cause and numbers of casualties, magnitude of damage
· actual and expected security conditions for field staff, program resources, and beneficiaries, and any other factors in the emergency settlement which can create stressful conditions (or burnout) for field staff
· immediate vs. medium/long-term beneficiary needs
· planned numbers and actual locations of beneficiaries
· other planned responses, responses to-date
· quantities, types, and locations (local, regional, international) of resources needed
· expected duration of the emergency response (and the indicators on which the estimate of duration is based)
· likely logistical bottlenecks or other types of obstacles to project implementation (e.g., lack of effective coordination structure)
· counterpart capacity to implement the planned operation (including basic management functions: account for expenses, submit clearly-written reports)
· history of the counterparts relations with the beneficiaries, host government, other emergency actors
· previous emergency experience (i.e., actual performance as opposed to simple job titles) of newly-hired field staff
· listing of all entities (government, UN, NGOs, etc.) active in the emergency-affected country/zone complete with contact names and numbers, prior experience in disaster response, and likely, available human and material resources
· post-emergency response plans.
Also of great usefulness for field staff are any lessons learned from previous interventions - including the reasons why certain decisions or actions were taken or not taken. This implies an organizational capacity to make use of institutional memory, either written or oral. (Oral institutional memory implies a significant period of overlap between former and current field management staff.)
Top management: Despite the current trend - real or on paper - at many agencies towards decentralization, the information needs of top managers of agencies which operate in zones of emergency settlements appear unlikely to decrease. Indeed, it may be precisely because of this trend that information requirements at headquarters tend to increase. As more and more decision-making authority is granted to field staff, top management may require additional information to assure boards of directors and CEOs that the decentralization process is in reality a positive step for the agency.
Top management reporting needs will generally include summarized information (i.e., by emergency response by country) on the specific information items noted above in the section on Field Staff to enable longer-term strategic planning. Of particular importance for top management is information which can assist the overall allocation of agency resources by region or function. This would include good estimates of program duration, actual or planned responses by other agencies, and the field staffs assessment of longer-term, recovery needs.
Donor needs: A capacity to respond to the many needs of the interventions various donors is one of the signs of highly effective information management by the emergency agency. Such a capacity implies being able to provide regular situation and financial reports on a periodic or as-needed basis and in a format acceptable to each donor. Such a level of responsiveness has proved problematic for many emergency respondents whose information systems are often organized around internal agency needs.
Some emergency response agencies long used to programming resources with little or no outside input are increasingly faced with donor demands for more reporting precision. As resources decline relative to global need, donors want to know exactly how their specific contributions have been programmed by the emergency response agency. More and more, the donors definition of usage includes not only the type of the program (e.g., maternal/child health or food-for-work) but more precisely, the exact location and target population of the emergency response. As civil strife displaces more and more populations, often mixing victims with the actual perpetrators of that strife, donors want to be able to assure their own constituencies that emergency responses are well-targeted.
Reporting difficulties posed by these trends can be minimized as long as respondents - before accepting resources - discuss with the donor that donors particular information needs. The rule of thumb is: before any transfer of funds occurs, both parties should be very clear as to the reporting requirements that will be expected on the emergency response agency. Generally such requirements can be worked out in advance of a crisis so that valuable time is not wasted negotiating agreements at the time of need.
Beneficiaries: Unfortunately, the affected population is sometimes regarded by emergency managers simply as source data for the information system; it is often overlooked as an actual user of the system. In reality, the affected population is involved in the development of the information system from the outset: as the chief provider of information, as the most interested party in the systems development, and as an end-user of the systems output. Beneficiaries or potential beneficiaries need and deserve information on the response agencys plans and implementation schedules, resource arrival times, distribution methodologies, philosophical orientation (i.e., participatory or paternalistic), i.e., information on the agencys targeting and methods of delivering assistance.
Emergency managers must ensure that assessment, monitoring, and evaluation teams not only glean information from the affected population but, as well, respond to the requests for information from that population. Field staff must in meetings and interviews clarify their agencies intentions for the affected population; to leave the victims of emergency with the mistaken notion that assistance is forthcoming when a response is not yet approved or funded is more than unethical it is cruel.
Host governments: The information needs of host governments will vary greatly, but all will require disclosure of any resources imported, purchased, and/or programmed by emergency respondents, the programs location, and the population served, particularly if the emergency settlement is in a politically sensitive zone. The same rule of thumb applies here as in the case of donor information management: Emergency response agencies with a permanent presence in-country should try to work out government reporting requirements in advance of the crisis if at all possible. Agencies arriving in-country at the outbreak of an emergency would do well to meet early on with the host government authorities responsible for emergency response to understand the governments information requirements. Agencies which choose not to do so risk disruptions in service delivery later on the response when host government officials begin to demand information.
The public: Emergency response agencies ultimately depend upon the publics perception of their actions. Information management includes consideration of the publics need - and right - to understand how and why resources are programmed in an emergency settlement. Agencies which are responsive to that public need are more likely to benefit from public largesse over time. Public needs - in addition to those listed in the section on Field Staff - include clear information on the agencys administrative/overhead costs and the percentages of donations which in fact are programmed directly in the emergency settlement area.
Confidentiality and information
As a Best Practice, every effort should be made to make information freely available. In humanitarian emergencies, open access to information promotes vital information-sharing. Restrictions on the free flow of information limit debate and informed action. Traditionally, any attempts to secure information have served largely to erect organizational barriers which impede information flow and inhibit needed decision-making and action. As a rule of thumb, the issue of confidentiality should be raised only when the dissemination of information poses security risks for emergency response staff, program resources, or the affected population.. Other information concerns include:
· Confidentiality of registration information: Where security of the emergency settlement is in fact a concern, registration plans must first and foremost consider whether or not registration poses any danger to the settlements population. If so, the emergency manager has two options: to discontinue plans to register until such time as security is no longer a concern; or establish a confidential system for production and maintenance of the registration information. In the latter case, the field staff responsible for the registration must be able to convey effectively to the affected population that the information will not be made public. Otherwise, the cooperation of the affected population in the registration is unlikely.
· Confidentiality and the media: Clarity in information management policies and procedures is key. Where staff or beneficiary security may be a concern, top management must convey to all staff what the limits are on the permissible dissemination of information concerning the emergency settlement and the agencys intervention - to the media.
Field staff who are likely to encounter media on the site must be well-informed - i.e., trained - concerning the type of information they are permitted to speak about. They must be trained to understand any potential security threats posed by openness in formal or informal interviews.
Communications security concerns:
The communications equipment must be regarded as a critical component of the overall response. In areas affected by emergencies, efforts must be taken to ensure that equipment is well-protected from haphazard electrical problems (via generators and power stabilizers) and from theft, vandalism, or neglect (via secured premises and the designation of approved, trained operators.) All emergency response organizations should ensure that field staff are well-trained in the use and maintenance of the communications system.
Appropriate information systems technology
Too often enthusiasm for establishing information systems - particularly expensive systems using sophisticated hardware and software - displaces the more fundamental management decisions concerning the meaning and appropriateness of the information content: a high-tech version of the adage form over content.
While computerized systems do facilitate the production, analysis, and storage of information, manual, paper systems may in some cases be adequate. Manual systems - e.g., warehouse and office ledgers, handwritten waybills, etc. - may in fact be more appropriate in situations where the objectives of the response include involvement of the affected population in the response and familiarity with sophisticated technology is lacking.
In short, decisions concerning the appropriateness of the information systems technology should be made in the context of (1) the overall emergency program goals and objectives and (2) available skills.
Where the decision has been taken to use more sophisticated technology, emergency managers must be concerned with costs of hardware purchase and installation, software purchase or development and installation, staff training, and system maintenance. Even a temporary loss of any of these assets - hardware, software, data, or staff - can bring the information management system to a grinding halt and - depending upon the degree of integration of these systems - cripple the emergency managers capacity to analyze project impact or provide an acceptable level of accountability to top management.
Assuming conditions under which sophisticated technologies can be operated with some degree of reliability, emergency managers can benefit from a variety of high speed data transmission technologies which are increasingly becoming indispensable to many operations. Satcoms are at the more expensive end of this market; Fidonet and packet high-frequency radio transmitted through modems are less expensive options. Direct Internet access, despite difficulty of usage and current high cost, will increasingly become available to many agencies as e-mail can be used to send messages, financial reports, Geographical Information Systems (GIS) data, or other files to and from field offices. Again, the downside of these technologies is the frequent need for technical specialists to help with installation and implementation, especially when the technology is first introduced.
It is, then, important to let the needs and local conditions drive the decision concerning which technology to select and not to start with preconceived notions of what is appropriate. Some of the more sophisticated systems currently in use by emergency managers include:
· GIS: Geographical Information Systems are computer software packages designed to map and track changes in topography, political and economic land use, demographic concentrations and numerous other characteristics of land use patterns. Such computerized mapping is of interest to the emergency planner primarily from the point of view of resource management and changes in land use patterns from large displacements.
Emergency managers must consider the high costs of the equipment (computers and GIS software, digitizing equipment, scanners, high resolution printers, etc.) and the long-term maintenance and training needs that such a system requires. Communications systems must be in place, or be put in place, for data transfer, and baseline maps prepared. Still more extensive training is required if Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are to be used for data collection.
Emergency planners may not need the degree of accuracy offered by computerized GIS systems. For purposes of disease control, provision of essential services, registration information and planning, field staff may find sketch maps tacked to the wall to be as useful and far more cost-efficient. Emergency planners should begin their discussions of the potential use of GIS with questions concerning problem definition, data sources, and intended users of the information, rather than focusing right away on hardware and software. Planners should also ascertain ongoing government commitment to support the system on a long-term basis before scarce resources are programmed for the effort.
· Emergency operations logistics software: Numerous computerized logistics systems have been developed by UN specialized agencies, NGOs and government aid agencies responsible for tracking in-kind contributions. To date, however, generic commercial software easily adaptable to emergency logistics needs has yet to be offered. Within the emergency response community, several custom software packages have been developed. These include:
SUMA: A medical supply tracking package developed by the Pan American Health Organization which tracks supplies consigned to emergency response agencies.
CTS: A Commodity Tracking System software package developed by UNHCR
INTERFAIS: A food commodity tracking software package developed by the World Food Program
DALIS: A commodity tracking software package developed by the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and the U.S. Department of Defense, designed to track relief items received and programmed by aid agencies.
UN and NGO Systems: A number of UN agencies and NGOs, including World Food Programme, CARE, and Catholic Relief Services, have developed commodity tracking software packages. Such packages are designed in accordance with each agencys specific needs and require internal, systematic changes to fit anothers particular situation.
Constraints on the data1 collection process fall mainly into two categories: logistical (time, funding, team formation, transport, etc.) and definitional. The latter - which involves ensuring that the questions asked and data collected do in fact define and respond to the right problem - require as much advance planning as the former. Lack of sufficient problem definition and/or failure to communicate the problem to those responsible for collecting the data often results in the wrong questions being asked, the right data and opinions being ignored, and a generally confused set of results.
1 UNDP/DMTP definitions of data and information are used: Data are simply units of information including perceptions, numbers, observations, facts or figures...Data sometimes conflict with one another, for example, when two individuals report widely differing perceptions of the same event. Information, on the other hand, is useful data. Data become information when they are meaningful, relevant and understandable to particular people at particular times and places, for particular purposes.
Managers should ensure from the outset that team members are well-briefed in the actual objectives of the data collection. In rapidly changing situations, even with a determined focus on problem definition, data can quickly become dated and, therefore, misleading or irrelevant. Managers must stay abreast of these changing conditions, assess alternatives for action, and ensure that data collection teams are well-briefed. Other managerial concerns include:
· Speed vs. accuracy in assessment: One rule of thumb to use in planning to collect data via an initial rapid assessment (carried out two to seven days after notification of emergency conditions) calls for a data collection methodology that permits the assessment team to get the whole picture - half right. In other words, a quick albeit rough approximation of the entire scene may be more valuable to decision-makers at the outset than is an exact picture of the situation. An exaggerated concern for precision may use up critical time and produce results far too complex to be summarized and used as a basis for quick decision-making.
· Monitoring the program: The collection of data via an ongoing monitoring process - i.e., after the initial rapid assessment is complete - should be focused upon a few key indicators that are relatively simple to collect, compile, and present to decision-makers: e.g., malnutrition rates, mortality rates, arrival/departure rates. Expert assistance is not always needed; a modicum of field staff training can make the difference between a successful, well-organized effort and a rushed, confused operation.
· Quantitative vs. qualitative data: Field officers can be trained to use random sampling techniques to measure changes in the status (e.g., nutritional) of the emergency population. Spatial sampling or other sampling designs can obviate the need for a full census but still provide decision-makers with rigorous estimates in a relatively short time. Random sampling techniques used to estimate, for example, malnutrition in an emergency population can effectively be carried out in two to four days time, depending upon the skills of the data collectors. Calculations of mortality and arrival/departure rates take nothing more than interest, time and energy.
Even with the application of simple, useful quantitative methods, emergency managers will have to - and should - continue to make use of qualitative data to obtain a full picture of the emergency. Rapid rural appraisal techniques of focused interviews and open-ended questions administered by interdisciplinary data collection teams are useful ways to ensure that the differing perspectives on the emergency situation - which inevitably exist - are gathered.
Data processing: analysis and interpretation
In the rush to respond to the emergency, the team may hurry to send to the decision-making authority volumes of apparently vital data - vital chiefly because their source is the location of the emergency settlement itself. This apparent vitality can, however, without necessary and sufficient processing, rapidly diminish as data from many sources flood the office of the decision-maker. Confronted with volumes of unfiltered data, the decision-maker may end up reacting more from personal experience than from any useful insights obtained from field staff. This reaction may at times be acceptable, given sufficient experience and familiarity with the emergency site on the part of the decision-maker. More likely, however, is a process of second-guessing as higher authorities, far removed from the field and under a myriad of pressures to act, react to particular, subjectively selected bits of data.
Data processing - the turning of bits of data into information on which optimally-rational decisions can be made and actions taken - generally receives a large proportion of the information system resources (computers, software, and highly skilled human resources.) This essential link in the information management system, however, continues to plague many emergency operations. The proclivity to focus on form over content becomes a real danger as technicians massage data into state-of-the-art forms of presentation, into sophisticated databases or GIS maps when what may really be needed is an experienced eye, the ability to read between the lines, to sift through competing sets of data and identify the consistencies. Those responsible for sifting through the data should always bear in mind the following:
· Cross-checking: Interpretation of data cannot be done in a vacuum. Staff responsible for data analysis must quickly - but systematically - collate and cross-check data received from initial rapid assessment or monitoring teams against reports from other agencies.
· Bias: Attempts to make sense of assessment data require more than technical expertise; an understanding of the particular biases of the assessment team members and of the key informants/interviewees is also essential. Bias can result from language, gender, age, mandate and specialty (a sanitation expert looks for sanitation problems), the time of day when and the specific locales that the program monitors visit, etc. An assessment team member of similar ethnicity to one group of displaced in the emergency settlement is more likely - in the absence of proper training - to migrate towards that group simply because the data gathering is made easier by that similarity. Without a clear understanding of bias, men are more likely to interview men, women more likely to seek out women. These human realities must be factored into the data-processing equation.
· Baseline data: An understanding of the baseline or background conditions which existed for the affected population - and for the local population already resident in the emergency settlement area - before the current emergency began is always useful.2 Baseline data - e.g., population, demographic, economic, and social data - are needed to provide points of reference for assessment, monitoring and summary evaluation team efforts aimed at understanding the changes brought about by the disaster and the emergency interventions and to signal improvement or deterioration in the magnitude of need.
2 A note of caution is needed here. Many disaster response manuals call for the assessment team to distinguish between emergency and long-standing, chronic needs, that is to differentiate between what is occurring as a result of the disaster and what is normal for the population or area. However, if normal conditions, (eg, malnutrition rates) can be confused with emergency conditions, then a good argument can be made for an immediate response whether or not the situation has been formally labeled an emergency (ie, acute malnutrition is acute malnutrition whether or not the conditions causing it are officially an emergency.)
In its simplest form, an information system provides baseline data in table form by geographic or administrative area in a form easily usable by those responsible for making programmatic decisions concerning the emergency settlement intervention.
· Use of standard terminology: Where standards exist, figures gathered by the assessment team should be presented according to accepted conventions. Whenever possible, data should be presented as proportions or percentages. To report that 100 people died tells the decision-maker little. A report that 3 out of 10,000 people are dying daily signals an emergency of great magnitude. It also establishes a benchmark against which later changes in emergency conditions can be compared.
The dissemination of information to the critical decision-makers and media representatives who are in a position to set the wheels of the emergency response in motion should, as with all other aspects of the information management system, be planned from the outset. The gathering and processing of data to produce information which does not reach the essential decision-makers are an unfortunate waste of scarce resources. Policies and procedures specific to emergency information dissemination should be established at every agency. Normal channels are generally inadequate to engender a quick, effective response. In establishing those policies and procedures, the geographical, political, and organizational location of decision-makers to whom information is to be disseminated must be taken into account.
Once again, strategies for information dissemination should be set in the context of the overall emergency response goals and objectives of the agency. For example, an agency seeking to maintain a low profile in an emergency zone for reasons of politics or security is likely to decide against a policy of wide-open information dissemination, whereas one whose very security actually depends upon openness and close, worldwide scrutiny would clearly opt for the opposite.
· Compiling the list of end-users: The dissemination of emergency information, as in all aspects of information management, requires advance planning - to identify all of the various recipients of information and their particular needs. Overlooking one key user can, in some bureaucracies, slow particular aspects of the response to a crawl. The time needed to identify and update on a regular basis (because if the information is good, the list will grow) the list of end-users is time well spent. Given the capacity of contemporary information processing technology, shaping the information to each end-users particular needs should not, with some foresight and planning, be problematic.
· Regularity of reporting/information dissemination: Many headquarters and field staff, in establishing their individual response priorities, often accord low status to their reporting functions. Ill get to it when I have time is often the response to a request for information. Emergency managers should establish early on in the response regular and systematic information dissemination procedures. Field staff should be trained in these procedures and encouraged to understand that getting the information out is a critical part of their functions.
· Informing the affected population: Emergency information systems should not forget to include the actual emergency-affected and/or their leaders when compiling the list of information recipients. High priority should always be given to informing the affected about the assessment teams findings, any actions taken to-date or planned, and what others - agencies and affected alike - are doing to mitigate the affects of the emergency. Language and illiteracy constraints should be considered; verbal reports via translators may be required.
· Use of the media: The media throughout the world play a key role in informing the public about emergencies: issuing warnings of coming hazards, collecting and transmitted information about affected areas, and alerting emergency respondents to particular needs of the affected. Indeed, the quickest means of getting the international community to recognize the outbreak of emergency conditions is clearly via the media.
Often, however, attempts to disseminate information through the media can backfire on field staff determined to make use of this valuable channel. Instead of being used to report what the field staff considers useful information, the media interview can be turned into a vehicle for the journalist to tell a story which may have little or nothing to do with the information that the emergency response agency wants to disseminate. Too often, the images presented are of the horrors of the emergency with too little focus on the achievements of the intervenors. The end-result of such a media show is momentary interest on the part of the public generally followed by a longer period of compassion-fatigue as efforts are viewed in the light of such negative images as futile.
To pre-empt such possibilities, it behooves the emergency manager to establish in advance - and maintain - relationships with specific journalists who are likely to take a professional interest in the agencys emergency response programs. Of importance particularly to headquarters units is the opportunity to develop relationships with the news wire editors - those who determine much of what actually get disseminated in the media. Equally important is training for field staff in Media Management skills. Field staff who can act as effective spokespersons, trained to get their point of view across, are an increasingly essential asset of any emergency response agency which is dependent upon the good will of the public for its operating funds and material resources.
Aspects of communications technology
Sophisticated communications technologies are used throughout emergency operations today: in disaster mitigation, satellites and GIS mapping efforts are used to assist production of vulnerability maps; in disaster preparedness efforts, satellites are employed in early warning systems; and in disaster relief operations, aid workers transmit data on needs, resources and security assessments, monitor the progress of logistical operations, or provide fundraising departments with immediate updates on program and beneficiary status via satellite communications.
Fax, voice and data communications (computer to computer) continue to be the most widely-available and used technologies. In remote emergency settlement operations where local infrastructures can no longer support these communications needs, relief workers today increasingly transmit via satcoms - small, portable communications systems which make use of the International Maritime Satellite or INMARSAT facilities. (INMARSAT is an internationally-owned cooperative with over 75 member countries. Established in 1979, it is the only global provider of mobile satellite communications for emergency operations.)
· Satcoms: Satcoms generally provide almost worldwide communications for voice, data, and fax using a system of satellites. Satcoms are especially valuable when a countrys regular telecommunications lines are disrupted by the disaster; using mobile satcoms and GPS, emergency response agencies are able to monitor the progress and location of equipped staff, regardless of the state of local infrastructure.
Portable INMARSAT satcoms have proved extremely valuable for initial rapid needs assessments. INMARSAT-M satcoms are briefcase-sized and provide voice, fax, and data transmission capability. While equipment costs remain high for small response agencies, they are decreasing. When linked with High Frequency radios or other cellular technology, satcoms can provide international communications for an entire network of users.
Terrain generally poses no constraints on satellite communications systems as long as the radio antenna is unobstructed and has a clear view of the sky (in the direction of the satellite.) Heavy rains can obstruct the signal. Satcom communications planners should take into account the relatively high (although decreasing) equipment costs, compatibility of peripherals (fax, cables, fuses, spare parts), and operations procedures (e.g., fixed periods each day to limit reception times and conserve batteries). Electrical power supplies are always a concern (Lithium batteries are lighter but must be fully discharged before recharging. Car batteries provide a steady supply of power without fluctuations. Small generators - whose power supply fluctuates with fuel quality or altitude - are best used to power a battery which in turn powers the satcom directly.)
· Radios: Hand-held radios continue to be the most cost-effective communications devices for field staff within many emergency settlements. HF or high-frequency radio is available for long distance (up to 500 kms) voice communications, is not dependent upon unobstructed line of sight conditions, and can be operated anywhere in the world. Some emergency response organizations have used HF radio to transmit data, albeit at a relatively slow (i.e., 1200 baud) speed. HF systems are generally more difficult to set up and coordinate.
VHF (very high frequency) or UHF (ultra-high frequency) radios are available for voice communications and can be adapted for data communications. VHF/UHF usage is for communications limited to a one to three kilometer range with a clear, unobstructed line of sight. Range can be extended through the use of repeaters and higher transmitter output power. The major difficulties in setting up VHF/UHF systems are posed by potential lack of host government cooperation.
· Airlifts and cost concerns: Agencies implementing high-tech emergency communications systems should bear in mind the high costs of procuring, transporting, installing and training staff in their use. Where there is immediate need to establish communications links to the emergency settlement in order to obtain needs assessment or other information on conditions, an airlift and/or airdrop of radio equipment by the relief agency to field staff may well be justified (i.e., low volume, high value cargo.)
Maintenance of institutional memory
The compilation and use of institutional memory - i.e., the recording and programmatic feedback of lessons-learned from an agencys emergency response efforts - is perhaps the most oft-cited yet under-served information management need Ideally, staff should be able to draw on the prior experience of their colleagues with information easily accessed from their organizations bank of institutional memory whenever needed. Nonetheless, this goal remains elusive for almost all organizations: reinvented wheels are the rule rather than the exception.
What is needed is for organizations active in emergency response to designate one or more core staff to record the agencys experience and developing the systems for relatively easy storage and retrieval of this information on an as-needed basis. Interviews and correspondence with experienced emergency managers, past and present, are the simplest way to developing this potentially valuable resource. That same staff person should be charged with designing and implementing a system for disseminating those experiences to field staff on an as-needed basis.
The institutional memory bank would maintain details on all responses, successful or otherwise. In addition to compiling information on what actually was done in response to a particular emergency, the memory bank would ideally provide information as to why particular decisions or responses were not taken; often the decisions not taken are as useful as those actually carried out.
Standards in Information Management and Communications have been proposed on a number of occasions by many agencies. Attempts to agree on common standards have been problematic, however, due primarily to the varied mandates, interests, and information needs of different emergency response agencies. A few such attempts - as well as areas in need of further discussion - are noted below:
Emergency situation reporting
Most emergency response agencies have developed in-house formats for situation reporting (i.e., sitreps). UNHCR, WFP, and other agencies have relatively comprehensive formats which correspond to their individual information needs. Sitreps should always be numbered.
Emergency donations reporting
While, to-date, there is no commonly accepted standard for emergency reporting, the UN/Department of Humanitarian of Affairs has developed a 14 point report format which that agency is encouraging donors to follow to facilitate compilation and analysis of emergency commitments. Standard formats would facilitate comparisons of program monetary values.
As information systems technology continues to evolve, differences in system architecture are inevitable. Emergency information systems planners should, however, attempt to adopt open architecture in their data presentation formats to ensure the capacity to use and share data. If, on the other hand, proprietary (i.e., private) formats are used, agencies may be unable to use the data or share the data with others.
Generally, INMARSAT satellite communications are increasingly used for international emergency communications; high frequency radio is used for long distance communications (usually up to 500 kms); and VHF or UHF radio is used for short distance communications (one to three kms).
The standard code system should always be used (e.g.: A = alpha, B = bravo, C = charlie, etc.) for radio communications.
Generally accepted commodity accounting principles (GACAP)
A number of American NGOs involved in programming U.S. Government concessionary food assistance have worked as a consortium (Food Aid Management) to produce the GACAP standards for food commodity programming. GACAP is a body of principles which, if followed, assure the donor (in this case, the U.S. Government) that the commodities will be programmed with a minimum level of accountability. NGOs which decide to follow the GACAP principles are, in effect, establishing an agreed standard against which they may be audited by the U.S. Government.
Information systems design
Commonly agreed standards (or guidelines) of information systems design include an end-user focus, modular design, the development of procedures libraries, normalization of linked data tables, and, most importantly, clear and comprehensive documentation for users and technicians.
Other areas in need of standards
· International Terms and Symbols
· Communications Hardware
· Data Collection Techniques
· Data Processing Techniques
· Assessment Report Formats
· Evaluation Report Formats
· Transmission to Other Agencies
Key Resources for Information Management and Communications
Anderson, Peter S. 1989. Toward An Integrated Australian Disaster-Management Information System: Challenges and Prospects for the 1990s. Policy Research Paper No. 4. Centre for International Research on Communication and Information Technologies (CIRCIT), South Melbourne.
Anderson, Peter S. (ed.) 1990. Proceedings of a National Workshop on Information Exchange Needs Assessment, CIRCIT/ACDC, Victoria, Australia.
Cate, Fred H. (ed.), Harnessing the Power of Communications to Avert Disasters and Save Lives, The Annenberg Washington Program, Northwestern University.
Centre for International Research on Communication and Information Technologies (CIRCIT). 1990. Proceedings of a National Workshop on Information Exchange Needs Assessment. Australian Counter Disaster College (ACDC), Victoria.
Cutler, Peter. 1985. The Use of Economic and Social Information in Famine Prediction and Response. Overseas Development Administration: Research Theme No. R3779. Relief and Development Institute/Department of Human Nutrition, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London.
Exploring the Benefits: Bringing Global Communications Access to the Developing World, Iridium Today 1 (1).
Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, USAID. 1994. Field Operations Guide for Disaster Assessment and Response, Version 2.0, Washington DC.
Rattien, Stephen. 1990. The Role of the Media in Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Management. Disasters 14(1).
Sapir, Debarati G. and Claudine Misson. 1992. The Development of a Database on Disasters. Disasters 16(1).
Schuler-Repp, Jane. 1992. Discussion: Information Systems in Disaster Management. Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, Bangkok, Thailand.
The Annenberg Washington Program International Disaster Communications Project. The Tampere Declaration on Disaster Communications. Northwestern University.
World Food Programme. 1993. Food Aid in Emergencies, Policies and Principles and Operational Procedures for WFP Staff, Rome.
World Health Organization. 1985. How to Improve Communication; Following Instruction; Giving Instruction; Working Together; How to Motivate a Group. (Booklet 13), Geneva.
International Maritime Satellite Organization (INMARSAT), London.
Volunteers in Technical Assistance, Washington, DC.