The Rise of the Disaster Technologist

The time is passing for the one-trick pony.

As the Internet and Internet-connected technologies continue to make their way into the day-to-day operations of disaster response and emergency management, staffing a response from a technology standpoint is getting a little more complicated, and that trend is not going to go anywhere anytime soon.

If you go back to how we used to respond to disasters prior to 9/11, the use of technology to facilitate communications was pretty limited.  There was a lot of use of amateur radio, of course, but besides radios and some telephones deployed by the local telco (if you could get them to help out in the middle of a crisis…), that was basically it.  I remember responding to many disasters during the 1990s that were paper-driven events.  Forms, forms and even more forms.  A fax machine was a key indicator of a technologically advanced response.

But what was going on throughout the 90s?  The Internet was exploding.  It was transforming societies around the world, enabling a much richer level of communications for businesses and individuals alike.

It took a few years for the emergency management world to recognize the technological wave crashing against the shore.   During the 9/11 response, it became clear to many agencies that they simply could not scale their paper-based processes to the needs of the emergency.  A lot of money was spent in the early part of the last decade to bring the modern office to emergency operations centers and incident commanders everywhere.   PCs, tablets, wireless networks, and all sorts of Internet-based applications became increasingly common in responses I was a part of from 2003 onwards.  And one need only look at more recent responses, such as that to Hurricane Sandy, to see how the BYOD phenomenon and mobile devices continue to force the emergency management community to respond quicker and with more agility to populations used to a new iPhone every 14 months.

But the increasing need for an complex array of communications technologies in modern response is being challenged by the simple issue of finding skilled individuals who can deploy this technology.   Ham radio operators may have a poor understanding of social media and little to no SM presence.  The techs who deployed the Wifi network and the satellite dish may not know how to set up and operate radio systems.  Social media experts may understand how to use Twitter, but they may have very little understanding of how packets move across the Internet, and how to overcome technical challenges that prevent them from reaching those SM resources in the cloud.   We may yet choke on technical silos due to the fact that skilled people may have skills in one domain, but not necessarily in others.

This calls for a new kind of technology responder, one whose core competency is adapting a range of technologies to the emergency environment.  This is the area of the disaster technologist.

A disaster technologist should have the following skillsets…

1.  Understanding of the emergency environment (e.g. FEMA NIMS/ICS courses, or others depending on response).  This is a fundamental building block since a lack of this understanding means the technologist is operating out of context.

2.  Expertise in multiple technology domains – equally comfortable using multiple methods and multiple modes for communicating.  Why multiple domains?  Because if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.  What you need are people who have a toolbox full of tools.

3.  Expert collaboration and problem solving skills.   Disaster communications often involves improvising solutions in the field…it will be essential that these individuals are comfortable in the “Iron chef” mode where “making it work” may involve a lot of different sorts of technology and duct tape.  It helps if people play well with others…

FEMA tried to address some of this in the now-moribund FEMA NetGuard program.  It was a program for tech responders that had yet to move beyond the pilot phase.   Just because the FEMA program didn’t grow legs didn’t invalidate the need.  In fact, during Hurricane Sandy, there were a number of technology NGOs that we saw on the ground deploying wireless mesh networks, Voice over IP, and other tech to enable communications between first responders, but perhaps more importantly, enabling those affected in the communities to connect to resources.

We must solve the critical skills gap in order to ensure that we can deploy effective technology infrastructures in an emergency.  Looking into my crystal ball a bit, the future will call strongly upon those with a broad-based technology skillset, rather than the “one trick pony.”  As a community, we need to encourage individuals who may have these skills and help them to get involved with their local response agencies, non-profits, etc.