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Screenshot showing real time map on tablet (Fires relief outreach). Red pins indicate properties to be visited, Green indicates those already visited. Orange indicate visited but no one home.

Smart devices are transforming door to door field operations

In Australia, post-disaster Red Cross field operations have traditionally been based on the use of hard copy maps and briefings, with paper forms used to record relief and recovery information. Whilst this is a very reliable approach, door to door visitation rates are limited by data recording timeframes, the reliable identification of properties is difficult and the high level of data transcribing is inefficient and adds accuracy risks.

Australian Red Cross, with support from the GIS community has found that electronic tablets offer significant efficiency and effectiveness gains for agencies coordinating door to door emergency service activities. Experience to date has indicated that compared to traditional hard copy based arrangements, this approach offers:

  • Reduced human resource requirements
  • Improved operator safety management
  • A significantly improved operator experience, and
  • Better data validation with much speedier incorporation of field data into management systems

Whilst trials to date have been in post event relief and recovery support, the technology would also appear to offer great potential for hazard response agencies, particularly in pre-event information gathering. This would appear to especially apply to agencies with casual non-career teams in the field (eg rural fire brigades and SES teams)

Background

The traditional Red Cross methodology has been to plan and coordinate door to door operations using a combination of computer based and manual hard copy systems.

Where possible, the initial response planning is informed by Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) which are used to indicate the location, density and spread of impacted households. Depending on the nature of the emergency event, a combination of predictive modelling and actual impact information will be utilised. This then feeds into an options analysis which factors considerations such as the scale and urgency of humanitarian need against support delivery options and accessible resources.

The coordination of outreach operations would then be based on the use of hard copy maps and briefings, with paper forms used to transfer and record relief and recovery information in the field.

Depending on the scale of the operations, the number of personnel in the field typically varies between 2 and 100 per day. Visitation rates vary from around 5 properties per team per day for intensive support / remote locations, up to 40 properties per day for a ‘knock and drop’ scenario in easy terrain urban locations.

Back in the field IMT, those forms were then transcribed into a GIS linked dataset, enabling the informed planning of target locations for the next day’s shift.

Inefficiency and data error potential exists at the point of transferring electronic data to and from hard copy forms at the start and end of each shift, as well as in the completion of forms by hand in the field.

As the scale of event escalates, the monitoring of personnel safety in the field became increasingly difficult. The gathering and storing of data received from the field also becomes problematic, with personnel collecting information from hundreds of households or individuals each day.

The human resource and organisational requirements in processing large amounts of data or ‘Big Data’at large scale events, analysing that data and reporting meaningful information in operational timeframes ultimately becomes an overwhelming task.

While these traditional tools were sufficient for small-scale operations, for large, complex and prolonged operations the limitations could be summarised as:

  • Being relatively labour intensive (especially in transcribing hard copy information to electronic datasets).
  • Requiring a degree of maintained effort to ensure data accuracy (transcription error risk, difficulty in matching street addresses to actual locations, interpreting handwritten info).
  • Often leading to confusion as to the correct address of individual properties that have been visited, or in confirming that a targeted visit to a specific address actually occurred at the correct property. This can readily occur where property numbers or street signs are indistinct or missing, or in internal blocks where multiple properties share the same street address.
  • Requiring a substantial evening shift of the field IMT to incorporate that day’s data before the following day’s operations could be planned.
  • Having efficiency and user experience issues constraining the breadth and timeliness of support delivery or the willingness of volunteers to re-deploy.
Corresponding map display from website portal view.

Corresponding map display from website portal view.

Screen capture showing legend of pin colours reflecting status of record from website display screen

Screen capture showing legend of pin colours reflecting status of record from website display screen

The move to tablets

Red Cross GIS support is provided by a network of volunteer GIS professionals, a capability which has grown from an initial agreement between Red Cross and the ACT based MAPs network.

Following the 2013 Southern Tasmanian fires, feedback from the Tasmanian GIS community identified that cost effective smart phone / tablet options could now readily enable a fully electronic approach to outreach coordination and data recording / transfer.

In particular it was identified that a local government council in Southern Tasmania was using an app (Fulcrum) for the collection of asset management data that appeared to offer a readily affordable and highly suitable option. That solution provided a web interface available at any computer (password protected), an online form creation interface and the ability to load forms to both IOS (Apple) and Android devices. It also provided the ability to see the data live via Google Earth, the capability to live feed via JSON format into QGIS enabling Operations Coordinators to monitor ‘remote’ operations, and an API option allowing integration with other systems (albeit requiring dedicated programming skills). Further investigation showed that the Fulcrum app had also been successfully used by American and Ugandan Red Cross (see http://fulcrumapp.com/blog/disaster-planning-with-uganda-red-cross/) in disaster support operations.

Early in 2014, Red Cross was asked by the Tasmanian Government to lead a multi-agency outreach operation involving a number of government and community sector agencies providing door to door follow up support to specific communities recovering from the 2013 Tasmanian wildfires. This provided an ideal opportunity to test the process on a number of tablet platforms with a range of users.

That initial 2014 trial in South East Tasmania was a resounding success, with career and volunteer field staff unanimously preferring to use the tablets in preference to the traditional hard copy system.

Based on that success, Red Cross then trialled the use of tablets in post-fire relief and recovery operations in NSW and South Australia. Benefits observed in these 3 trials included:

  • Simpler briefings, including the ability to visually denote individual properties for visitation.
  • Consistent recording of property locations, using the tablet’s GPS to auto record property coordinates.
  • Human error in data collection significantly reduced through tick box and drop down list options
  • Instant download to IMT databases, with negligible human resources required and a nil data transfer error component.
  • Live EOC monitoring of field crew locations reducing WHS risks (where 3G coverage available).
  • Teams able to monitor in real time their respective positions in the field, and see which properties had / had not been visited across all teams (where 3G coverage available)
  • Next shift planning able to start at or before the completion of that day’s operation (through elimination of the post-shift data transcription stage back in the field IMT)
  • Field personnel reporting a significantly improved deployment experience; particularly important when dealing with volunteer workforces.
Screenshot showing custom reporting form created for TC Marcia outreach March 2015, Rockhampton.

Screenshot showing custom reporting form created for TC Marcia outreach March 2015, Rockhampton.

Potential relevance to the Emergency Management Sector

Whilst initiated to support relief and recovery operations, this approach would also appear to be highly relevant for pre-event defendability mapping. For example, it would enable rural fire brigades to easily map and upload the status of individual properties in their area, with that information then accessible to Planning and Operations to guide the allocation of resources during a fire response. Volunteer brigades could also identify potential hazards such as escape choke points which could then be included in agency datasets/mapping to inform out-of-area brigades deployed to fire grounds where they would lack local knowledge.

With state and local government agencies, as well as community organisations increasingly using geospatial information systems, there is considerable scope for cross-sector partnerships and resource sharing. The same establishment costs and expertise in usage can be shared with non-emergency sector agencies involved in field data collection.

Considerations for potential adopters

  • Possible resistance from some personnel to engage with modern technology (found to not be a problem where training provided prior to deployment)
  • Data security and privacy risk management. (data cloud stored until downloaded)
  • Establishment capital expenditure and ongoing phone card and licensing costs vs savings in personnel and site re-visiting costs
  • Losing the tangible back up redundancy of hard copy forms, balanced against off-site downloads offering a different form of back up redundancy
  • Requires a level of technical support to set up forms, maps and assist with any technical issues as might arise
  • Does involve an electronic item that can be broken or run flat if not re-charged
  • Where an emergency management or partner agency already has a resident GIS capability, the GIS platform they use is likely to also offer a smart device capability.

For more information, go to www.redcross.org.au/contact-tas.aspx

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Howard Colvin is Manager Emergency Services, Tasmania, Australian Red Cross.