In a Disaster, The First Responder May Be You

June 27, 2011 - 5 Comments

On March 11, when Japan suffered a one-two punch — first from an 9.0 earthquake and then a devastating tsunami — more than 1,200 tweets per minute were sent from Tokyo, according to Mashable.   More recently in May, after a terrible tornado hit Joplin, Missouri with full force, killing 145, several FaceBook pages were rapidly created by citizens and their families and friends to post pictures of the missing, share news of loved ones,  information about conditions on the ground, and messages about supplies, shelter and support.

Social media networks are transforming how people give and receive help and information during disasters.  People aren’t waiting for direction from government and humanitarian agencies; they are turning to each other using mobile devices and social networks. In the dark world of disasters, this emerging trend is challenging old assumptions and can and will, I believe, will help focus, support and strengthen the efforts of trained first responders  (both volunteer and professional)  to get to where they are most needed and put their expertise to maximum use.  Social media and the networks that underpin it simply allow more people to support each other.

Cisco CEO John Chambers discussed the value of secure collaboration in a networked world last week at a National Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) and Homeland Security conference in San Francisco. John talked about the role the network will play in being able to securely provide relevant timely information to response agencies. He also conducted a scenario demonstration of what would happen should an emergency arise, using the upcoming America’s Cup Race in San Francisco as an example.

(VIDEO: Cisco Chairman and CEO John Chambers on the role the network will play in being able to securely provide relevant timely information to response agencies.)

Today, digital communications enable citizens in affected areas to support disaster search and recovery missions and provide detailed and valuable information to formal responders who may not be familiar with the local community and terrain.  As FEMA director Craig Fugate has said, “We can adjust much quicker if we can figure out how to have this two-way conversation and if we can look at the public as a resource.  The public is putting out much better situational awareness than many of our own agencies can.”

Of course the public’s use of social networking tools isn’t the only advance on the public safety and security front. Just as technology innovation in social media has meant new life lines for citizens, other network advances are building stronger and more reliable collaboration and communications capabilities among public and private responder agencies as well as citizens. One example is Cisco Networked Emergency Response Vehicles  (NERVs ) that provide  secure mobile communication over satellite, wired and wireless network infrastructures, voice over IP, network-based video, TelePresence video conferencing, and radio and voice interoperability. This supports better decision making and pinpoint targeting of multiple resources.

In Joplin, shortly after St. John’s Hospital was destroyed by the tornado, the city reached out to Cisco for help.  Within 24 hours, Cisco’s Tactical Operations (TacOps) team sourced, staged configured and shipped all the communications and network gear that the temporary, tented 80-bed medical facility would need to operate for the next 12-18 months. Six Cisco employees configured and built the wireless, voice, routing and switching connections for the facility.  Cisco people also trained staff at the Convoy of Hope, a disaster-response NGO that provides supplies and food for displaced people, so they could use an emergency communications kit and satellite antenna to connect their command centers. These are just two of the several ways Cisco helped multiple layers of government emergency response agencies, NGOs and citizens. There are similar stories about our work after tornados hit Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, and Wake County, North Carolina, in April.

The network plays a critical role bringing together these different forms of communications from social media to existing radio networks to video. Integrating public, private and citizen security connections reduces incident response time, empowers those in the field to make decisions based on all available information and ensures that the right information gets to the right people at the right time.

As I mentioned earlier, disasters are difficult and dark times that cause too many people to suffer.  What technology innovations – whether it’s social media or specialized communications tools used by professional responders – reveal is that people are essentially good and, given the tools to communicate and help one another, will do so intuitively.

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  1. In the past, the hams played an important role in helping the people when a disaster has ocurred.
    Today, with the new technology, many people can help.
    My congratulations to Cisco for help saving lifes

  2. Hi Alan,

    Thanks for the mention in this article!

  3. I would have to agree with Charles. I was on the ground during Katrina and Gustav and it would have been very nice to have sat-based phones. While available in 2005, there was not much time to prepare, so even the simplest of things like that would have been useful, however due to the nature of the flooding during Katrina, there wasn’t much anyone could do for certain areas.

    Had it not been for our network and data center staying up during Katrina, a lot of New Orleans and the north-shore would have been isolated completely. Customer circuits were slow to come up. AT&T did not bury any fiber on either side of the lake, which was more of a problem during Gustav than Katrina. One CO’s on the west side of the lake was completely flooded causing most of the lit fiber to go dark or LOS. The east side of the lake had some fiber working, but they made a mistake and cut the only working path to the north-shore. Complete isolation for ~4 hours. Needless to say, government officials and local residents were not pleased when 911 goes down for an entire lata for that long of time.

    Hopefully, those watching outside of the state learned valuable lessons from those 2 events. I know I did. I can just imagine the problems that occurred in Japan and Joplin. It’s very good to see that Cisco has finally teamed up with FEMA to get sat-based communications on the ground as quickly as possible.

  4. I am a first responder and am CERT trained and appreciate some focus on the topic. However, it may be more difficult than you think for Cell Phones to operate during a crisis, making response and information difficult at best to come by. The best thing every citizen can do is to take a minimum 2 hour training class of How to take care of yourself and your family in the event of a natural disaster. In Marin County, the 2 hour session is called Get Ready. For those who have an appetite to become an asset in their neighborhood after an emergency, take the full 20 hour CERT training.

    I posted over the weekend on my web site an article about a Grand Jury report on community preparedness. You might just want to read it as a first step.

  5. Alan,

    Thanks for the mention in this article!

    For more information about the NERVs or Cisco TacOps, please see

    or visit us on Facebook

    Rakesh Bharania
    Cisco TacOps