As the world continues to grapple with the effects of COVID-19 and the ensuing economic fallout, authorities are already working to manage new disaster and emergency events — whether it’s bushfires in California, floods in China, earthquakes in the Philippines or volcanos in Indonesia.
For many communities, COVID-19 is part of a string of compounding events testing their resilience and resolve.
As bushfire and cyclone season approach in Australia, Esri Disaster Response Program Lead for Australia, Mark Wallace, shares insight into the actions governments and communities can take now to improve crisis preparedness, response and recovery.
How will COVID-19 impact preparedness for seasonal disasters this year?
Every country around the world has had to strategically redeploy its resources to manage the impacts of the pandemic. In Australia, for example, public resources were seconded to support efforts to contain the spread of the virus.
No doubt authorities need to prepare for what’s coming, but new considerations have to be made for the change in their resource landscape.
Last year, as bushfires broke out along state borders, firefighters from different states were on the scene, but given current border closures — and the fact that fighting bushfires can make social distancing nearly impossible — that kind of interstate collaboration may not be possible now.
Developing resilience as an individual and as a community takes time and planning – in that respect, when do we develop resilience, especially if COVID-19 overlaps with the next bushfire season?
Developing resilience is an evolution not a revolution – we need to evolve resilience over time. We also know that resilient communities are informed communities.
Information products for community engagement need to be readily available during a crisis. It is imperative that communities have the necessary access to information products underpinned by robust data sharing platforms and governance structures to answer the questions of ‘where’ – for example:
- Where’s my nearest safe place?
- Where’s the nearest COVID-19 testing centre?
- Where are the hotspots?
- Where are the areas most likely to be affected by a bushfire?
- Where are the bushfire or flood prone locations?
- Where are the populations most vulnerable to COVID-19?
Disasters impact many stakeholders from all tiers of government, to industry, community groups and individuals. How can collaboration be encouraged?
Stakeholders need to be prepared to share information prior to an event – not just during it. We know that data sharing and collaboration leads to a faster, more informed response through better decision-making and optimally allocated and deployed resources.
To enable data sharing, the appropriate collaboration platforms and governance structures need to be in place so that when disaster strikes, everyone is working off the same authoritative data to ensure consolidated and effective response efforts. This is where technology platforms such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are so valuable. A distributed GIS allows stakeholders to access accurate data within the context of their role to support their scope of work and inform their decision making.
A great best-practice example of inter-agency data sharing is Australia’s Emergency Management Link (EMLINK) – a portal enabling local, state and federal agencies to access emergency-related spatial data in a human readable format.
What do resilient governance structures look like, especially for complex policy challenges such as climate change and chronic disease?
One of the tenets of resilient communities is forward-thinking leadership that can embrace and leverage new technologies and capabilities to inform their policies and to deliver solutions and services that work for their communities in the long term.
Decisions need to be driven by comprehensive and accurate data that delivers real-time situational awareness. It’s all about connectivity and collaboration – communities that are more collaborative are more informed and more resilient.
I think a good example of this is the University of Canberra’s geospatial health indicator framework, which brings together different data layers to paint a clear picture of the nation’s health landscape — everything from the data on the built environment to demographics and chronic disease incidence goes into influencing public health policy across local, state and federal government.
What’s the best way to manage new volunteers in a crisis?
One of the best examples of spontaneous volunteer management that I’ve seen was the American Red Cross – one of the largest disaster recovery organizations in the world which responds to an emergency every 8 minutes.
From small house fires to multi-state natural disasters, the organization partners with hundreds of government authorities to understand where they’re needed, before dispatching a volunteer army of more than 40,000. They leverage a world-class geospatial solution to guide their operations and generate new efficiencies.
The award-winning GIS solution, known as ‘RC View’, synthesizes thousands of federal, state and local data sources into one dynamic picture that informs the decisions and actions of an 80,000+ strong workforce – as well as an extended network of government agencies and community partners.
What are some practical steps communities can take to build resilience and respond to disasters better?
In the aftermath of disasters, we’ve seen communities come together to support each other and that’s been the most powerful recovery tool you could wish for in a situation like that. By the same token, collaboration between government agencies, emergency services and businesses offer an equally strong tool.
Let me give you a few examples that we’ve seen around the world. Earlier this year when Jakarta flooded, collaboration and data sharing provided a common operating picture for emergency management agencies to understand the situation in real-time. Similarly, in 2018, when Mount Agung erupted in Indonesia, crowdsourcing apps and 3D maps were leveraged by emergency services to understand where people were and where resources needed to be deployed urgently.
In Malaysia, the Defence Geospatial Division (BGSP) set up the Centralised GeoCentric Disaster Management collaborative platform to help anticipate and better respond to natural disasters. The platform was put to task during a flood disaster and played a significant role in collecting and sharing real-time data, helping relevant agencies coordinate rescue missions, prioritize critical areas and optimize resource distribution. The collective results provided detailed and accurate reports for decision makers to provide a faster and informed response to major incidents.
In the US, a multi-state earthquake exercise – CAPSTONE – was carried out to address information-sharing challenges that had previously hindered emergency response efforts. By gathering 18 different categories of information – such as road closures, power grids, hospital status and other live field data such as damage assessments displayed visually and in real time – and sharing them among eight different states, the response to the disaster was quicker and more effective.
We want to see local organizations and agencies go towards that collaborative, data-sharing model, leveraging distributed GIS capabilities because that forces them to work together to get the data sharing going, get the proper arrangements in place, the governance that goes with it and it allows them to understand and provide information products to people based on their roles.
For more information, go to esriaustralia.com.au/resilient-communities