Web collaboration, Reverse 911 used in wildfire battle

The experiences in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina have helped San Diego officials in preparing for emergencies such as the fires

The massive wildfires burning in and around San Diego are testing technologies that the city recently deployed for managing disasters, including a web-based system for coordinating emergency-response operations and a Reverse 911 system for alerting residents.

And Matt McGarvey, the city's CIO, thinks those technologies are making a difference in fighting the fires and getting people out of harm's way.

McGarvey was reached early this morning after spending all last night in the city's emergency operations centre, where he also works as a director. He said that the Reverse 911 system, in particular, has been "a real lifesaver during this."

In 2003, a major wildfire was blamed for 16 deaths in San Diego County. Although the latest fires were still raging yesterday, the county thus far has put the number of deaths connected to the blazes at six.

McGarvey cautioned that only time will tell how use of the Reverse 911 technology can actually help to prevent deaths. But he said the system has been "very effective in getting the word out" about the fires. Without it, San Diego residents would have to rely on news reports about impending dangers as well as police officers going door-to-door — something that also has continued during this week's wildfires.

The city includes about half of San Diego County's 3 million residents, and upwards of 300,000 people who live in the city have been evacuated because of the fires. A PDF document containing a list of city homes damaged by the fires has been posted on San Diego's website, and it currently is just over 10 pages long.

The installation of the Reverse 911 system was announced by the city just last month. The system can deliver recorded emergency messages to as many as 240,000 households and businesses per hour, using databases of phone numbers from AT&T along with geographic information system (GIS) mapping capabilities.

When a section of the city is identified for evacuation, the coordinates are entered into the system and calls are automatically made to people in that area, McGarvey said.

The wildfires are also the first major test of a web-based information management system that was installed just over a year ago. During the 2003 fire, emergency coordinators in the city shared information back and forth via email, and McGarvey said that method was "not nearly as good" as using the new system is.

The web-based technology, developed by ESi Acquisitions in Augusta, Ga., is a collaboration tool that works similarly to a message board — enabling a variety of users to post updates about significant events. The system also can be used to share files, such as the latest GIS maps of burn and evacuation areas. The ongoing sharing of information is "providing a lot more situational awareness," McGarvey said.

But he added that the new system also creates some of the same challenges that pop up with any Web 2.0 collaboration tool, including the posting of information that hasn't been fully verified. That happened on Tuesday night, when a report was posted indicating erroneously that one of the fires had spread much further west than believed. McGarvey said the incorrect information prompted city workers to begin contingency planning for a situation that didn't actually exist.

The experiences in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina also have helped San Diego officials in preparing for emergencies such as the fires, according to McGarvey.

"The big lesson from Katrina was to make sure that you have some redundancy in your communications," he said. In particular, the city's IT department was ready with wireless communications capabilities for Qualcomm Stadium, which currently is being used as a shelter for evacuees.

Prior to the start of the fires, the city also conducted contingency planning with Qualcomm for the use of satellite phones. Thus far, they haven't been needed because the cellular networks in San Diego are holding up, McGarvey said.

Looking forward, McGarvey said one thing he would like to improve is the capability of the city's GIS system. Although the current system lets city officials see exactly what there is in a given location, "what's missing is the context of what it means," he said. For instance, if a water filtration plant stopped working, McGarvey would like the GIS system to be able to report on the areas affected by the shutdown.

McGarvey said the city has started preparing for post-fire recovery procedures, including the return of evacuees to their homes. He added that the IT staff will be working to help set up assistance centres, which will probably be located in local community centres and will include networking and telephony support for delivering services to residents.

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