Emergency Management Technology – Going Beyond the Common

As I travel across the country with Hexagon Safety & Infrastructure showcasing emergency management software at conferences and events, a reoccurring conversational theme is: “It needs to be something I use every day”. What these folks mean is if they aren’t using an emergency management solution on a daily basis, they certainly won’t turn to it during an emergency event; they will turn to the familiar, the understood, and the everyday tools they use to get the job done.

That makes sense. I won’t argue with that logic. The last thing you need is to waste time trying to figure out an emergency management application you haven’t touched in six months, or a year, or even longer when situations happen. My experience in emergency response planning has occurred largely within the energy sector, and largely within small to medium sized businesses. In general, the technology I’ve seen used to address an emergency response includes cell phones, conference bridges, and the occasional computer connected to a projector on a large screen in an emergency operations center. The infrastructure control systems (e.g., SCADA) also play a large role in the operational aspects of the response. But not so much in the coordination and management of the response. A quick search of the Internet will tell you that approximately 50 percent of organizations use some form of emergency management software to coordinate staff in a crisis. But when you talk to those organizations they tell you “yeah we bought that, but we don’t use it.” Why? The app is cumbersome, or there is a simpler, more common means to complete whatever task or process the emergency management software was purchased for. As a guy who works for an emergency management technology company, it’s definitely thought provoking.

There are a lot of emergency management tools out there, and a lot of thought and intelligence has gone into developing systems to improve response time, reduce impact, and save lives. I believe these technologies, used as designed, do improve the process of planning and responding to an emergency. And yet, by and large, the common tools continue to be used, and proclaimed as better simply because of their familiarity. So how do you get beyond the common? Or put another way, how do you make the improved systems, those with the intelligence and functionality to significantly improve the metrics of a response, the common tools that are used? You have to make the system and its interfaces useful every day, and you can help that by operationalizing emergency management.

Sound complicated? It’s not as complicated as it might seem, but it does involve a certain shift in organizational dynamics and culture. Really, what I’m talking about is setting up your emergency management software system(s) and processes so they are integrated with the daily activities of your organization. Each day is addressed as an event with the potential to include any number of emergencies. The emergency management system doesn’t need to interfere with daily operations, but it should be set up to absorb and take-in the results of daily operations at a higher level.

And, should some of those results be unexpected or outside normal parameters, the system and personnel are ready to address those instances as part of standard, common emergency management operations. Many emergency management systems come with a map, so it should always be kept up to date with ongoing activities and statuses. Other systems have communication interfaces, task tracking, and assignment – use them within the emergency management team – and within the larger organization – to process workflows. If the system performs resource management, use it daily to monitor the emergency management resources (and others) to know who’s on where and when. If the staff uses the tools daily, train other applicable staff through routine interaction, and there is a conscious level of readiness maintained across the organization, you’ve obtained emergency management nirvana. And, ideally, the more sophisticated and complex systems and tools designed to improve emergency planning and response will become the common ones used and looked to when a disruption to normal day-to-day operations occurs.

At Hexagon Safety & Infrastructure, we encounter organizations where emergency management systems have been installed to address emergency events, but lay dormant, unused, and likely unusable should an emergency happen. We understand organizations want value for their investment and that is why with each technological systems implementation we include transition and adaptation phases to help with the organizational culture shift. Emergency management software implementations are most successful when the idea that an emergency can occur at any time is actively embraced, and operational metrics associated with normal and abnormal activity are embedded in each process. As emergency managers, coordinators, and planners focus on responsibilities with attention to the systems in place to improve emergency management performance, the need to learn from and engaging these systems so that they become familiar and part of the common tools in use is essential.

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