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Disaster Relief Experiments with FEMA at Camp Roberts

May 15, 2013

Last week, Tony and I spent the week out at Camp Roberts in California, testing Fulcrum in the field with FEMA for disaster relief needs as part of the RELIEF field experiments.

FEMA DRC set up


The objective of RELIEF is to bring together people from industry, government, and academic institutions to field test hardware, software, and ideas to experiment with interoperability needs for disaster relief requirements. For last week’s RELIEF 13-3 event, the focus was on the needs of FEMA and DHS as the anchor point for collaboration on improving:

  • DRC (disaster recovery center) operations – making the assistance experience for affected people more “survivor-centric”
  • Mobile operations – field work conducted by DSATs (disaster survivor assistance teams), direct interaction with affected communities
  • Network, data, material management – covering hardware and connectivity, such as mobile networking
  • Structure and process – advancing the workflows for information capture and management

With Fulcrum, we actively participated and collaborated on all levels, primarily on mobile and DRC operations. Data collection is an instrumental component of FEMA’s entire process, from initial triage of disaster damage all the way through to survivor registration and relief distribution.

Early in the week, once the FEMA Corps team arrived, we provisioned mobile iPad and Android devices with Fulcrum along with some offline tiled basemaps to use for field testing. With that set up, and an initial “damage assessment” form created (for basic initial survey of damage and utilities available), the team went out to conduct a simulated disaster survey, using the old barracks structures on Camp Roberts as stand-ins for damaged neighborhood houses. For round one, we had internet connectivity during collection, allowing one of the team members back at HQ to make small iterations to the forms while the team was in the field. While not always available during relief operations, having a network bridge back to the ops center allowed for rapid iteration on forms to hone in on exactly the data required – unprecedented capability for teams accustomed to using paper surveys designed weeks or months prior to the event.

RELIEF data collection

In round two we worked completely offline, using a damage assessment survey with corrections fed from the team’s feedback in the previous day. With offline aerial photos as a reference basemap, the field team was able to rapidly move house to house capturing data about the structures. In a true disaster scenario, this data would be used by the FEMA coordination staff to direct inspectors and assessors to the most critically affected areas first, those most in need of assistance. Tightening this feedback loop with Fulcrum’s rapid iteration capability allows for even a large organization to stay agile with their process and change on-the-fly in response to conditions on the ground. In a crisis situation requirements change moment to moment, so the tools used should be able to adapt.

As surveys were collected and pushed up to the cloud, operations managers back in the office could take the data, export it, map it, and most importantly use this information to drive decisions spatially and temporally. Getting assistance to the right house as fast as possible is critical, and the tight “collection → analysis → response” cycle using Fulcrum gives decision-makers the information they need to more effectively direct aid.

We learned a great deal more about practices in disaster relief scenarios, and spent some time with FEMA and others rethinking and reordering the data surveying and consumption process to optimize for getting the most out of the field team effort. It was an exciting series of field experiments, and drove dozens of interesting “ad hoc” experiments as we iterated through the week.

If you’re interested to hear more about how we field tested Fulcrum, feel free to ping me on Twitter. This is an exciting time for advancing the art of the possible for disaster relief needs, and we’re glad Fulcrum is contributing to the cause.