An opportunity: improving client services during disaster relief.

Author:Helferich, Omar Keith
Position:Guest Commentary

Experience and research show that we must improve our response to catastrophic incidents regardless of their nature--natural disasters, emerging diseases such as avian influenza, or terrorist events. This commentary discusses in-field observations of responses to catastrophic incidents, reviews of after-action reports, and research funded by the Department of Homeland Security.

The authors believe that solutions exist that would allow improvements to be made in the provision of basic client services (e.g., sheltering, feeding, health care) following a catastrophic incident. Aside from the obvious issue of funding, support for incremental improvement from organizations such as NEHA and the American Red Cross is a necessity.

In-field Observations

As assistant director of logistics operations for the American Red Cross (ARC), Dr. Helferich, a 15-year ARC volunteer, helped direct the logistics operations for the feeding and sheltering of Hurricane Katrina victims. This and other on-the-ground disaster recovery experience has provided insight regarding shortcomings and opportunities in the provision of basic client services.

Effective communication in the actual in-field situation remains a significant challenge: after Hurricane Katrina, phones were generally not operable, mobile phones were not dependable, and wireless technology was not available. Public needs and the availability of resources (e.g. food, water, housing, and health) are still often assessed and communicated via paper-based systems, which leads to inaccurate, inconsistent, and outdated information. Environmental health response teams collect necessary assessment data using clipboards, thus requiring the additional step of data entry upon returning to the response headquarters. This process increases errors and slows response to critical environmental health issues (e.g., contamination caused by general water pollution, mold, feces, chemical toxicity, oil, and pest infestation). All of the supporting response teams (e.g., ARC, environmental health agencies, faith-based groups, and governmental agencies) seem to experience this lack of reliable information and communication systems.

Unfortunately, methods of communication were antiquated in far too many instances during our collective response to Hurricane Katrina. For example, during the first few weeks of response, critical communications among food preparation operations, feeding stations and shelters, and the ARC command center relied on courier services. These same basic problems have been observed in other disaster operations such as after the Oklahoma City Bombings, after the September 11 terror attacks, and during responses to floods and hurricanes.

After-action Reports

The above observations are supported by a 2004...

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