Digital citizens need a new approach to emergency services

Every year, the world community faces a variety of natural disasters including earthquakes, fires, floods, storms, and droughts. In response to these realities, many nations have developed sophisticated emergency response capabilities. These continue to be maintained at peak levels through ongoing programs of review and reassessment. However, continuous improvement alone does not always provide sufficient answers in a changing world. Sometimes there is a need for some deeper reflection to consider the emerging needs of a changing community. Today, personal technologies raise significant opportunities that go beyond existing services.

Emergency services need to embrace online technologies

Personal technologies are changing the way people find information and communicate with others. Gone are the days when press releases were taken as the primary source of information, or when governments could vet information before release. Today, official announcements are debated, supplemented, and reassessed through blogs, social media, and other online forums. The community has access to a vast array of information, and can increasingly undertake action based on its own assessment.

Mobile services and social networking have already started to become part of the standard emergency services arsenal. However, these services are typically seen only seen as supplementing existing facilities, and often rate only a passing mention in strategy documents.

The best disasters are ones that don’t happen

Quite understandably, media attention typically focuses almost exclusively on heroic efforts involved in dealing with a disaster. However, there is a growing recognition that emergency services need to be considered in a much broader context so the disaster response is just one part of a much bigger cycle of activity. In Australia, for example, this change of thinking was clearly spelt out in the Council of Australian Governments’ December 2009 National Strategy for Disaster Resilience. The document laid the groundwork for a much more sophisticated form of grass roots engagement with the community by covering prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery. The key focus moved from a response-based strategy to a strategy that builds disaster resilience into the fabric of the community. The 2009 document laid the foundation for significant policy and strategy developments at both state and federal government levels. The most recent is the December 2012 Victorian Emergency Services Whitepaper. This builds on earlier work by simplifying administration to make way for broader community thinking. The document recognizes “a new understanding of shared responsibility [where] individuals, communities, emergency services organizations, business, industry and government all have a role to play”. The document goes on to note “the conventional top-down approach to emergency management is changing. Governments in Australia and around the world recognize the importance of local involvement in emergency management, particularly in planning and mitigation”.

This broader view of emergency services opens the door far more readily for new and innovative applications of digital technology.

It is time to think more deeply about the changing needs of a digital society

There are many examples worldwide that provide a glimpse into how digital technologies can be used in novel ways, when other government services have not been available. In the aftermath of the New Zealand earthquake, citizens again banded together to fill information gaps in formal government services. For example, the Christchurch Recovery Map provided dynamic information to the public on areas of devastation. This map was constructed entirely by volunteers using open source tools available freely over the Internet, with data updated by general public using personal mobile technology. In the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, resources from government and United Nations workers were stretched to the limit. Citizens began to mobilize their own response, using mobile phones to call people trapped under the rubble. Citizens also began to use social networking to organize their own relief effort, and to call for funding support from overseas.

Digital technology is a core part of the ecosystem of modern society, not just a peripheral activity or optional extra. The challenge now is to build government services that take account of these realities.

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