A goal of our grant is to assist towns, business and nonprofits in using technology to be more prepared in the case of another disaster. This effort includes encouraging communities to learn to communicate with their residents through social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Front Porch Forum (which we’re excited to have just launched statewide!) Several communities are taking things a step further: Citizens+, a community disaster response effort based in Bethel is experimenting with social media and a more advanced systems called Ushahidi to enable residents to share timely information with their town’s emergency operation center when disaster strikes or a recovery effort is underway. The article below, by Todd Sears, Bethel Citizen Plus Coordinator, describes what the town is doing with Citizens Plus.

Emergency Management, if conducted comprehensively is a monumental task. Only a few smaller towns in the State of Vermont have a dedicated Emergency Management Director, and it is often difficult to find the required resources necessary to fulfill his or her myriad mission duties. Bethel, however, has a highly motivated and energized volunteer emergency management cadre, designed to support the EMD (Emergency Management Director) and First Responders: Citizen Plus (C+).

The C+ concept is comprised of three primary thrusts: Public Education, Local Self Help, and Emergency Management Augmentation:

The Public Education thrust focuses on C+ home visits to every household in town to provide families with information and guidance regarding risk mitigation, personal preparation, and the basic elements of Bethel’s Emergency Management plan and structure.

Local Self Help is concerned with dividing the town into 8-10 geographic zones, designating a “geo-lead” for that area, and establishing a reporting chain which enables information to flow from those areas into the town’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and First Responder’s Incident Command, in order to provide situational awareness and a focus for future plans.

Emergency Management Augmentation allows the municipality’s EMD to fill in the gaps of his Emergency Operations Center, Emergency Shelter, and the fire chief’s Incident Command System with highly trained volunteers able to fill Public Information, Planning, Logistical, Financial, and Administrative roles. C+ will have three separate levels of training to enable these thrusts.

C+ is actively exploring ways by which information technology (IT) and web functionality can enable and enhance the role of the citizen during an emergency. This could involve how to best harness social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Front Porch Forum and others like them to expand and add an extra layer of communication and trust to the information created and used about the disaster by the affected municipality. Where yesterday we were concerned with the conventional media outlets and actions, today we must embrace and take advantage of other more progressive options as well.

One of the more exciting applications C+ is experimenting with is called Ushahidi, a freeware, crowd-sourced geospatial information application which allows near real-time plotting of various forms of media onto a map from the field. Imagine a scenario where a stranded neighborhood member, after the worst of a disaster has passed, walks his or her area to take stock of the situation, comes across a neighbor with an injury, a fallen power line, a washed out road, or a collapsed bridge. With a smartphone loaded with a free app and a few button clicks, that person can take a picture (or a video, or write a text narrative) of the situation, and immediately have it plot out onto a web-based map in the municipal Emergency Operations Center or Incident Command Post. An icon appears on the map where the incident has occurred; the operator at the workstation clicks on it, and sees a photo of the phenomenon, with amplifying descriptive information. The implications for immediate response and future planning are staggering.

The Bethel C+ team intends to hold future drills to conduct a proof of concept. Initial experiments are looking good. Our Bethel Response Ushahidi deployment is up and working, kindly hosted by GeoSprocket, a GIS consultancy in Burlington, and operated by Bill Morris. Though we are optimistic and excited about the future use of Ushahidi as an engine of situational awareness, we are also aware of the challenges which come with it. First, Ushahidi is dependent on connectivity to update data to the website. Bethel is a rural mountain community, and many areas are blind to the cell towers, which provide 3G/4G, as well as to broadband. Second, the error of the geo-referenced data point once it is updated onto the site can be quite significant. Though most points plot within 50 yards of where they were uploaded, some have been seen to be off by as much as a quarter mile. Finally, training can be an issue. Though the application and website are highly intuitive, the user needs to be comfortable with smartphone functionality and have a good understanding of how data transmitted. While all of these challenges are very real, none is insurmountable. We look forward to meeting these challenges head on.

The volunteers of Bethel C+ realize that the heart of what we do is personal and physical. It is knowing your neighbors and interacting with them. It is wandering your area and understanding the hazards which could rear their heads. It is neighbor helping neighbor, when help is called for. IT is powerful; but its deployment is not and should not be an end in and of itself. IT is an enabler; it enables us to do our jobs, to protect people and property, and in the best of cases, to save lives. We look forward into the future as we develop smarter and better ways to make this technology help us.