Applied Technology

How “cloud-ware” helped Joplin responders

It’s no secret that EMS providers are clever about taking a product or piece of equipment meant for one purpose and re-jiggering it to meet a new need. Typically, this is done on the fly and during a crisis. One example of this adaptability trait took place this past May during involved the worst tornado to hit the U.S. in 60 years.


It started with Interstate Disaster Medical Cooperative (Saint Louis) Chief of Operations Tim Conley, EMT-P, and a prototype software project he was working on with Microsoft Corporation. In his additional roles as director of planning and preparation for emergency management and mission support team manager for the Missouri-1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT), and director of planning and preparation for emergency management for the Village of Western Springs, Ill., he was asked to test the software to use as part of a strategic stockpiling planning initiative. During a biological attack, the software would provide the community with timely information on counter measures.


One of the unique components of the Disaster Response portal solution is that it uses cloud technology, which allows the software to be located off-site, away from the local disaster. Unlike local servers that could be damaged or without power, the software is accessed through the Internet via smartphones, laptops or tablets, such as an iPad.
Conley immediately recognized the potential to leverage the capabilities of the software to communicate with other emergency responders. “Once you leave your state, you are on your own,” he says. “We weren’t able to communicate with the state we were trying to help.”


He decided to test this theory during an eight-state, simulated earthquake exercise led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and held in Jefferson City, Mi. Joined by Microsoft team members, the Missouri-1 team used an internal version of the portal to track people and assets, such as medical supplies and generators, as they made their way to Jefferson City.


The exercise set about to test the mapping portion of the portal, a feature that provided directions to responders for the safest routes to travel, plus locations of all working hospitals and fire stations. A second, external version served a public information function, which provided regular updates to citizens and the media.


On Sunday, May 22–just two days after the exercise ended–Conley called Richard Zak, from Microsoft’s State and Local Government Team, to tell him the portal would be needed for the real thing. A deadly tornado had destroyed the city of Joplin.

How Microsoft got involved

Because affected customers often call Microsoft for technical support after a major disaster, the company offers a range of resources provided by its disaster response team. “Because of the cloud, we can be anywhere there’s a disaster,” Zak says.


He explains that, as a major employer with approximately 180,000 employees and contractors in more than 100 countries throughout the world, Microsoft is often there, supporting disasters when they occur. For example, Microsoft developed a mapping function for following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan to assist citizens in locating local food banks. When the devastating earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, Microsoft needed a feature to automatically translate English text into Haitian-Creole.


The Disaster Response portal brought together many of Microsoft’s experiences, including both of these solutions, which eventually became key features in the product.
However, the company developed the portal with one approach in mind. “We envisioned it as a way for governments to communicate with citizens,” Zak says. It wasn’t until they asked Conley to test it that they understood how it could be used by EMS. “We kind of stole it from him, to be honest,” Conley says.


The beauty of the software, Zak says, is that it didn’t need any modifications to allow responder-to-responder communications. Because of its ability to be customizable for each event, the portal easily made the transition.

In Joplin

When Conley’s team arrived, they were immediately faced with communication issues. “Early on, people couldn’t find us,” he says. “We couldn’t get anything to work at all.” Even the Internet connections were down.


Zak and his team worked through the night to launch the portal. Eventually, it was able to provide safe driving routes for responders traveling into Joplin. Using the portal, the Joplin team could track incoming responders to help determine resources. A map was provided to responders that included the locations of functioning medical facilities and available medical supplies. It was even used by the team planning the construction of the mobile medical unit to gather site information.


By Tuesday, it was clear that the lack of public information was a problem. Confusion regarding the complex process for identifying loved ones had created a public relations firestorm. Conley admits they didn’t have their PIO in front of the issue.


The portal was pressed into service to help manage the massive number of requests for information by directing both citizens and the media to a running log of updates and photos. Updates included an overview of the number of patients and types of injuries treated, progress reports on the construction of the Mobile Medical Unit, and information for Joplin residents and family members living outside the disaster area who were searching for missing loved ones.


The translation feature of the portal allowed content posted in English to be translated on the fly by citizens and the global press into as many as 36 different languages by the end user, assisting in providing updates to the global press.


Conley says they even used the portal archive for after-action planning.

Lessons learned

Since the Joplin disaster, Microsoft has been integrating lessons learned. The company recently completed an update of the portal. New features include color coding on the map in order to quickly distinguish shelters, medical centers, etc. A push-pinning feature allows for routes to be drawn on maps that can be used by citizens for safe evacuation or for responders navigating to the scene. The routes can be easily modified as conditions change. Microsoft has also increased its openness to allow third-party plug-and-play add-ins.

Using the cloud

One of the most important features of the Disaster Response portal is that it uses the cloud technology, an off-site software and data storage option. Zak describes it as similar to the electricity grid, where a consumer accesses power, as needed, from a provider in a remote location, eliminating the need to generate it on site.


The advantage for emergency responders is clear: one critical link in the chain is always up. “Where ever you are, this portal is available,” Zak says. As long as there is access to the Internet, there is access to the portal. Equally important is the fact that the technology can be used collaboratively across all responders. Because it’s Internet-based, no special software or equipment is needed to access it.


Zak says that with little technical skill, the portal can be up and running in less than an hour, which allows for valuable resources to be used elsewhere. “You don’t have to manage the hardware: just manage your emergency,” he says.


Conley admits that initially, he wasn’t completely up to speed about the cloud technology. “Before I worked on this product, the only thing I knew about a cloud was that it floated in the sky,” he says. “We are very happy with the software, or “˜cloud-ware,’ or whatever you call it.”


What is the ‘Cloud?’

Cloud computing is a term for the Internet-based delivery system model that allows for computation, software, data access and storage services to exist on a system at a location other than the user’s location. This “virtual” location allows companies to eliminate the need for many on-site IT services. The “virtual” location allows users to access information previously only found at the office from anywhere in the world via computers, mobile phones or tablets. Security measures are used to limit who has access to specific data.


For EMS agencies, storing business software and some data at a remote location is a cost-effective solution, but privacy issues preclude moving all data to the site. Most companies choose a “hybrid-cloud,” where sensitive data, such as patient care reports and customer credit card information, remains on local servers. The cloud technology allows for this type of flexibility.


Generally speaking, the cloud works best when used to house software applications used throughout the agency, as storage for non-sensitive data and for networking. Applications on the cloud tend to run faster and managed easier with less maintenance. Because information is stored elsewhere, rescue efforts during a disaster are not hindered because local servers are damaged or otherwise incapacitated by a loss of power.


Probably the most interesting feature for EMS agencies, is the cloud’s ability to be infinitely scalable during periods of high demand, such as during a disaster. Instead of paying for infrastructure that is rarely used, those using cloud technology only pay for the bandwidth they consume.

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