Managing Disasters with Internet Utilities

Fire season is here. Southern California fire departments and forestry services are urging residents to cut back brush on their properties and create “defensible space” Burbank is in a High Risk Period for Wildfirebetween the dry chaparral and their homes. Local news stations have spooled their resources to bring fire-related journalism to the population. And, we have already seen extreme technology such as DC-10s and 747s dumping insane amounts of Foscheck and water to quickly knock down fires which have popped up early in the season.

Southern California has fires, just as Kansas has tornadoes and Florida has hurricanes. Disasters are a natural part of nature and life. How we deal with natural disasters, our ability to survive and overcome challenges, and how we restore our communities defines our society.

Technology tools in place or being developed are having a major impact on our ability to react, respond, and recover from disaster. In the early stages of any disaster, communication is key to both survival and response. As nearly every person in the world is now tethered to a wireless device, the communication part isDefensible space to avoid brush fires becoming much easier, as even the most simple handset will support basic features such as text messaging and voice communications.

Getting the Message Out

Over the past 25 years the world has adopted Internet-enabled communications in a wide variety of formats for everything from email to citizen journalism. It is hard to find an event occurring anyplace in the world that is not recorded by a phone camera, YouTube video, blog, or real time broadcast.

In the 2008 Santa Barbara Tea Fire students from UC Santa Barbara used Twitter to warn fellow students and local residents to get out of the fire’s path as it raced through 2000 acres and more than 210 houses within the city limits. While it is not possible to put a statistic on the value of Twitter on evacuations and emergency notification, interviews following the fire with students revealed many had their initial notification through Twitter lists, and indicated they were able to get out of areas consumed in the fire (while screaming the heads off to others in the neighborhood to get out) before public safety officials were able to respond to the fire.

NOTE: I was driving through Santa Barbara (along the ‘101) during the initial phase of the fire, and can personally verify the fire moved really, really fast through the city. It looked like lava streaming out of a volcano, and you could see houses literally exploding as the fire hit them and moved through… I wasted no time myself getting through the city and on the way to LA.

Houses in Burbank's Verdugu MoutnainsThis article will not review all the potential technologies or software becoming available for emergency notifications, however we will look at the basic utility enabling all the great stuff happening to keep our citizens safe. The Internet.

Internet’s Utility is Now Bigger than Individuals and Companies

We all remember the infamous interview with Ed Whitcare, former CEO at AT&T.

Q: How concerned are you about Internet upstarts like Google, MSN, Vonage, and others?

A: How do you think they’re going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain’t going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there’s going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they’re using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?

The Internet can’t be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!

This statement, clearly indicates many in the internet network and service provider business do not yet get the big picture of what this “4th Utility” represents. The internet is not funny cat videos, porn, corporate web sites, or Flickr. Those features and applications exist on the Internet, but they are not the Internet.

Internet, broadband, and applications are a basic right of every person on the planet. The idea that two network administrators might have an argument at a bar, and subsequently consider the possibility of “de-peering” a network based on personalities or manageable financial considerations borders on being as irresponsible as a fire department going on strike during a California wildfire.

From http://www.wired.com/autopia/2009/09/evergreen-supertanker/As a utility, the Internet has value. Just as electricity, water, or roads. The utility must be paid for either before or after use, however the utility cannot be denied to those who need the service. When a city grows, and attracts more traffic, residents, and commerce, the intent is normally not to restrict or control the process, you build better roads, better infrastructure, and the people will eventually pay the price of that growth through taxes and utility bills. The 4th Utility is no different. When it gets oversubscribed, it is the carrier’s responsibility to build better infrastructure.

Disputes between network administrators, CFOs, or colocation landlords should never present a risk that SMS, Twitter, email, or other citizen journalism could be blocked, resulting is potential loss of life, property, and quality of life.

Communicating in the Dangerous Season

Fire season is upon us. As well as riots, traffic congestion, government crackdowns, take downs, and other bad things people need to know so they can react and respond. The Internet delivers CalTrans traffic information to smart phones, SMS, and web browsers to help us avoid gridlock and improve our quality of life. Twitter and YouTube help us understand the realities of a Tehran government crackdown, and Google Maps helps guide us through the maze of city streets while traveling to a new location.

We have definitely gone well past the “gee whiz” phase of the Internet, and must be ready to deal with the future of the Internet as a basic right, a basic utility, and essential component of our lives.

Net neutrality is an important topic – learn more about network neutrality, and weigh in on how you believe this utility should be envisioned.

Managing Emergency Communications – A Tutorial with Marc Ladin

The Station Fire ripped through communities along the northern rim of Los Angeles in August and September, consuming an area more than 160,000 Emergency Notificationacres. Evacuations came with little or no warning, homes and buildings lost, and the entire ordeal put a tremendous strain on utilities and resources. Including water.

When the city of Glendale needed to quickly alert residents to lower their water and power use to enable fire fighters to gain access to critical resources, they turned to a local company, Everbridge, to reach citizens with real-time notifications alerting them to the emergency.

On Thursday night Marc Ladin, VP of Global Marketing at Everbridge, walked CTC members though an introduction to emergency and incident communications management.

The Need for Emergency Management

Communications technology has made incredible leaps in utility, applications, ands capacity over the past few years. We can reach nearly any point or person in the world through telephone, mobile phones, Internet email, Twitter, Blackberry messaging, radio, television – the list is becoming endless.

Regardless of the technologies, natural and man-made disasters and problems remain a part of our lives, and will always be part of our lives. Our businesses, governments, and even survival, depends on how we prepare for disaster, and are able to respond to events that touch our lives. Good events and bad.

Marc Ladin makes a living solving the problem of communicating during emergencies and events. The residents of Glendale, like most communities in the United States, offers residents the option of registering their preferred communications devices with the city.

This gives the city an immediate channel to reach and inform residents in the event of disasters and other incidents of interest or impact to the city and residents.

In the case of the Station Fire, Glendale was able to immediately reach enough residents, and the city was able to lower residential utility draw to the level fire fighters had adequate water resources to protect the community.

The same model applies across the spectrum of emergency notification.

The Enterprise Business Continuity Plan

Nobody wants to think of a disaster that will hurt people, or isolate them from their family or organizations. However, it is also clear that any organization needs to have a business continuity plan in place, and a disaster response plan in place to allow the organization to quickly respond to, and manage, any event that will potentially damage the organization’s ability to function.

Consider this scenario. A large multi-national chemical products company. Highly visible in the world business community, and customers located around the world.

The worst case scenario happens. At the HQ site an explosion occurs in the manufacturing plant, killing several person in senior leadership roles, and requiring a massive response by emergency services and evacuation in the surrounding community.

Who do we need to notify to respond to the emergency, and who needs to know about the problem?

  • First responders – fire fighters, HAZMAT teams, ambulances, local hospitals, police
  • Local Community – residents, media (radio and television)
  • Company leadership – management, public affairs, operations
  • National and global media

How do you get the message – the real message – out to those people?

How do we determine if somebody is trapped in the disaster area, and needs help?

The process is getting easier. Every person, machine, and device connected to the Internet or other global communications service can be part of the event notification process.

Registering Your Communications Device for Notification

A company such as Everbridge offers as utility for managing emergency and event notifications. The utility (Everbridge) operates as a SaaS (Software as a Service) application, physically separated from the users. The SaaS application resides on several geographically diverse data centers, with multiple communication providers providing the conduit for global device notification access.

An organization will compile a table of their users and devices, with an individual having the ability to register all their available communications devices (mobile phones, email, Twitter accounts, etc), including a preference on notification priority (i.e., mobile phone message first, email second, home phone third…).

The organization then has the ability to sort members into different categories of notification. An example of how an organization might be sorted is:

  • C-level management notifications
  • Persons notified during emergencies
  • Geography (everybody in the Long Beach office, everybody in the Atlanta office, everybody in Japan, etc)
  • Function (operations, engineering, marketing and sales)
  • Local area first responders
  • And any other desired sort

Of course a single entry is easily tagged for multiple notification categories.

How to Make a Notification

In a traditional environment company leadership wants to make a notification. They may have their secretary make phone calls, might call an operations center and open a notification checklist, or other time-tested process.

The modern notification system can use a wider variety of methods for generating a notification:

  • A human being opens a web page and types in a notification message for distribution
  • A human being prepares an email or SMS message, and sends it to an address that spawns the desired notification tree
  • A machine experiences a condition that requires a human response
    • Fire alarm
    • Equipment failure
    • Security break-in or event
    • Etc

Once the message is triggered, and the notifications made, then you need to make a decision on whether or not the notified persons need to acknowledge or respond to the notification. Modern systems also manage and automate the acknowledgement process by logging replies to the notification message, allowing the alert initiator to determine if everybody has received the message.

This is important if you are managing a disaster, and need to determine if somebody could potentially be hurt or in danger, or if you need to escalate a decision situation to the next person in a business continuity plan.

With GPS capability, it is now even possible to determine the exact location of a desired device, further helping locate persons in a disaster. Consider a heart patient with an active monitoring device – that device can be registered in a hospital, first-responder, family, and neighbor notification matrix. This will increase the probability that person will survive in the event of health problems.

Other Creative Ways to Use a Notification System

Of course the same system that handles emergencies can also handle positive messages. The marketing group can use the same notification system for press releases, management can deliver positive company results to employees – basically once the person and device/s are registered in a data base, the entry can be used for whatever desired.

Marc Ladin presented a great vision. His company is putting the vision into reality, and has a lot of exciting features available today, and in the mill for tomorrow.

John Savageau, Long Beach

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