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Small communities can plan for emergencies too

Small communities find it difficult to react to emergency situations due both to limited resources and lack of pre-planning. European researchers have come up with an IT-based solution to help them out.

Small towns often rely on volunteers, such as part-time fire fighters, who mount the initial emergency response. Reaching the scene fast and being prepared is critical.

In larger population centres there is usually the physical, IT and telecoms infrastructure to enable planning for, and coping with, most situations. There are also usually sufficient numbers of well-trained and equipped professional emergency service personnel.

But in a small town the whole emergency plan, if there is one, is usually paper based and only accessible to one or a few people. People who respond to the emergency can be working in a virtual vacuum with little information about the emergency and few guidelines on how to react to it. In short, there is no risk management.

Enabling small communities

Researchers on the EU-funded research project ERMA have been looking at ways to make small communities able to respond to, and cope with, emergencies as efficiently and effectively as larger communities.

Bearing in mind the often limited IT and telecoms resources available to small communities, they have developed an online risk management system with a fixed and mobile-based telecoms alarm system.

According to ERMA’s technical coordinator Gertraud Peinel: “While you can’t be prepared for every eventuality you can be prepared for most emergencies because you can learn from what has happened in your community in the past as well as in other communities in similar situations.”

When an emergency occurs, says Peinel, the person coordinating the response should be able to get answers to questions like, ‘Is this an emergency, and if so what type of emergency is it?’ and ‘What is the situation at hand, and what steps should be taken in what sequence?’ Peinel says there should be clear information available on what has already been done and what needs to be done, who needs to be alerted and what they need to do, and what happens if the situation escalates.

Adapting business software

The researchers looked at some of the commercial software being used by business and industry, to see how it could be adapted to rescue situations.

Process management software, such as that used in companies, has parallels with emergency situations, with one step in the process being followed by another. ”It’s not the automation aspects of the software, but the pre-planning aspect which dictates exactly what to do at each step of a process that can be translated into procedures for, say, a fire brigade to follow,” she notes.

There are also parallels between the commonly used Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software, which provides companies with contact and other details of their customers, and what the project now calls Citizen Relationship Management.

Having an IT platform which is easy to use, and which allows responders to both access stored information and to input and share new information, is also a key part of ERMA. All of the necessary information also needs to be accessible regardless of what technology or language the responders are using.

“If there are several towns on a river which may flood, then they can learn from each others’ experiences both as far as planning goes and in dealing with the emergency in real time,” she says.

Toxic cloud in Spanish port

Once a core system was developed, the researchers did field trials with simulated floods in Romania, and a simulated toxic cloud in a Spanish port. “In both situations our prototype functioned well, with different emergency services able to tap into the information they needed, exchange information with each other, and keep the citizenry informed.”

With the technology tested, the challenge for the project now is to persuade people to use it. An extension has been granted from September to November 2008 so that the final paperwork can be done, and a business plan prepared to get ERMA marketed.

“We need to overcome the attitudes of ‘it can’t happen here’ and ‘somebody else is responsible’ and ‘we can’t afford to take precautions’, “ says Peinel. To this end, various modules are being offered so towns can at least get the basic system relevant to their needs and, if necessary, add on other modules later.

Sharing the costs

Municipalities which share the same or similar dangers, like flooding, will also be encouraged to share the costs of setting up a shared ERMA system.

There may also be legislation on an EU-wide basis encouraging small communities to properly plan for emergencies, and some individual countries, such as Romania, are also considering mandatory planning.

Whether it is ultimately down to governments or citizens to make it easier for small communities to plan for and deal with emergencies, the work done by ERMA will mean the tools to cope are available and affordable.

Christian Nielsen | alfa
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