Thursday, August 16, 2007

Potential uses of this blog

A major reason why I'm starting this blog is because I'm interested in technology to disseminate information before, during and after disasters. Even this particular blogging utility is useful. Bloggers with cell phones can use to communicate about any disasters that they might happen to get involved with. For example, I can send pictures or email from my cell phone to this blog, and I think it would be great to get more people with camera phones who live in high-risk areas to set up their own blogs for this purpose as well.

Before, during and after Hurricane Katrina (and Rita) impacted the U.S. mainland in 2005, I was very interested in how information was being communicated to the public, even though I wasn't personally affected by the hurricanes. Being severely hard of hearing and single, I can't reliably understand radio communication, and I wanted to understand how I would be able to get important information for my own survival if I happened to be in an area that was struck by a disaster. Even though I have had a web-enabled phone for several years, few emergency management agencies have developed a system for providing text messages about resources and other information for individual residents. Many deaf and hard of hearing people in the areas hit by Katrina and Rita couldn't directly find out about what was going on and what they needed to do even though the technology had long been available to send out information via email to any wireless devices they had.

After Katrina and Rita hit, I found that newspaper web sites in the area often seemed to be better about providing accessible local information about resources than other web sites. It's their job to provide written news, after all, and to do this quickly. One newspaper posted a link to a blogger who provided information about what was available in his local area, like gas stations that still had gasoline and a bar that had the facilities to serve hot food despite the power outage. Television web sites relied too much on videos that weren't captioned, and government web sites weren't flexible enough to provide the variety of details needed.

I think we all need to advocate for emergency management agencies to be MUCH more proactive about planning how information will get out to the public before, during and after disasters. Currently they rely far too much on radio stations to provide information, but there's a lot of problems with using just radio in addition to audio information not being accessible to people with hearing loss. (Radio information is "push" information only whereas people need to be able to "pull" down or at least subscribe to the specific information they need.) I think emergency management agencies need to involve the media and a variety of stakeholders, like organizations of people with disabilities and other special needs, in developing a variety of ways to obtain, coordinate and disseminate reliable information, and in communicating to the public how they can get critical information before, during and after disasters. However, most emergency management systems seem to be so focused on addressing the needs of emergency response personnel that they neglect the information needs of the public.

Let me emphasize: lack of information before, during, and after disasters can kill people. Imagine not knowing where the nearest accessible triage center is when one has a life-threatening medical emergency, you can't get through to anyone by phone, and you can't get to the hospital because the overpass has collapsed but you had no way of learning what roads were closed and thus what roads were still open. Imagine there's an out-of-control fire approaching your home and you didn't hear that the road you usually take to get out is blocked and you get stuck on that road along with thousands of other people who also didn't know the road was closed (true story). Imagine not hearing that you shouldn't drink the water because it may have been contaminated (true story). Imagine all the time wasted by first responders because of the lack of intelligent planning for information dissemination, and the consequent impact on lives and property. Planning for more effective dissemination of information needs to happen now.

If you happen to know of useful information technology for emergencies, please share your knowledge below!