An Opportunity: Improving Client Services during Disaster Relief

By Helferich, Omar Keith; Griggs, John E. | Journal of Environmental Health, November 2006 | Go to article overview

An Opportunity: Improving Client Services during Disaster Relief


Helferich, Omar Keith, Griggs, John E., Journal of Environmental Health


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health) are still often assessed and communicated via paper-based systems, which leads to inaccurate, inconsistent, and outdated information.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 American Red Cross research support initiative, conducted under the direction of the authors. In addition, Katrina after-action reports pointed out a number of similar issues.

All of the research and reviews indicate that the problem of loss of land line connectivity and limited cellular bandwidth is to be expected. This problem is compounded by competition among various disaster operations vying for the limited amount of telecommunications resources that are available. ARC also lacks technology that allows databases to be shared among the various logistics operations, other ARC service functions, and other agencies.

The reviews clearly indicate that ARC must implement software-based solutions that are user friendly, compatible with other ARC operating systems, and readily available to all ARC Chapters, Service Areas, and disaster operations personnel. A Web-based software solution that works across relief agencies, coupled with improved communication infrastructure, will save time and money in the long run. It will also provide better tracking of inventory and expenditures. For safety, quality, materials, and public health assessment and control, ARC must leverage Web-based technology with use by various disaster relief organizations. …

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