The May 2013 tornados in Oklahoma were a life-changing event for those in the path of the storm. Although not nearly as important as the work of the first responders and the volunteers who assisted and continue to help the victims of this storm, it also provided us with the opportunity to apply IT dynamically to make a difference, even in such a trying time.
I’d like to take the opportunity to talk about what we did with IT in this event, why the application of IT matters even in emergency civil response, and how being able to recognize IT requirements when you hear them is a critical skill if we are to truly align with the organizations we partner.
One of the first things we did was to provide very basic types of data to first responders. Names of children recorded in attendance at the Briarwood and Plaza Towers elementary schools were provided, and we made sure communications capabilities and basic IT services were functional for the service of the Office of Emergency Management. These services were not unique, were not focused on any specific use or purpose, but were focused on servicing general needs without being tailored to support a unique deficiency.
The following morning, we gathered for an emergency cabinet meeting at which Governor Fallin authorized the www.okstrong.ok.gov site. At that meeting, I was able to listen to the other cabinet secretaries discuss what their challenges were and how they were adapting.
One unique example was, although much bottled water had been donated, we had not had donations of hand sanitizers. As I listened, it sounded like what we needed was basically a bridal registry. First responders could put up lists of items they needed, and people could commit to the item, the time and place for delivery, and if the item was not produced, we could easily reissue the request. This app was called Donor Connect, and proved to be very useful to our emergency management staff.
Another problem came up when residents were given time to go through the debris in their yards before the city or state came to clean. The thing was, the debris in their yard was not their debris. It belonged to their neighbors, blown there from a mile away or more. Similarly, their own belongings were also missing.
We put together a registry much like Pinterest to let people take pictures of things they’d found in their yard that might be important to someone. Users posted images of photographs, furniture and other belongings and provided ways in which they could be contacted to retrieve their possessions.
More still needs to be done. Currently, there is no central registry of storm shelters for first responders to know where to search. Many shelters are built in garages, but when a tornado hits, the garage roof may fall on the door and it may not be possible for someone to get out of the shelter, or for a first responder to know there is a shelter under the roof. But we’ll be putting together this registry and asking people to register with the state. With their addresses, we’ll produce a latitude/longitude application for the first responders to locate a shelter, even when street signs and other landmarks are all wiped out.
Often, we find our business partners feel alignment equals agility. They may feel they know as much about technology as we do, they know what services, hardware, software, and so on that are available. They may feel they have better technology in their homes than we offer them in the workplace. Often, IT’s role is viewed as simply to deliver the iPad, the GPS application or the connectivity to the place where they need it without needing any customization, adaptation, or modification of the service. I’ve read often how the IT department “gets in the way” of the organization using the commercially available IT the business wants to use. The security, architecture, processes and end-user support services the central IT group provides inhibits the adaptation of new solutions, of innovation, or even of procuring what does conform to the standards established by IT.
But in Oklahoma, we found that it does make a difference when time is of the essence and you have direct access to the customer and the requirements they articulate, perhaps without even understanding that this is what they are doing. We were able to apply innovative solutions to assist in ways not anticipated by the end user. Our emergency cabinet meetings weren’t about bringing together the cabinet to discuss IT requirements. It was about how we could all collaborate to tackle our problems with the most efficient use of our resources.