Every year hurricanes, floods, fires, ice storms and other natural disasters visit the United States. We know that they are going to happen. With planning, we can use networks to lessen their impact, improve safe response, and put those affected back into normal routines quickly.
When disasters do happen we know that they will disrupt some part of our physical communications structures. Homes will be lost. Businesses will be destroyed. Citizens will become disconnected from each other, and from their support systems – their churches, schools, families, and government agencies. Recovery is about putting the pieces back together – if we can. It is about regaining control, reconnecting with our trusted support systems, and efficiently reestablishing our routines.
Disaster response and recovery is often driven by safety, emergency management, and operations professionals and agencies – as it should be. In traditional roles, they forecast events, predict consequences, and attempt to manage citizens by providing information that minimizes the affect of the event.
Response is seen as a tactical, strategic exercise to be planned with military precision. It takes place in a hierarchy of command and control with well defined jurisdictions and roles and responsibilities. But could we do more?
The power of networks
In the era of networks, could we use citizen and business networks that marshall community assets for even more effective response and quicker, less costly, more efficient and timely recovery? Could we effectively adopt a distributed network model to enable citizens and businesses to communicate in a peer to peer format that enables them to help each other.
Just as they do in the physical world, online networks would include churches, schools, employers, and businesses throughout a region or community likely to be affected by disaster – which is everyone. They would create electronic connectedness of resources and people in a way that is not easily destroyed. So when a disaster strikes, though physical infrastructure might be damaged, a community network of citizens and businesses could stay in touch and reconnect quickly.
They would regain control, and quickly go about the process of rebuilding – their support systems immediately intact.
Timing is everything
It seems so logical that we would invest in creating online networks – in advance of disasters. Once a disaster strikes it is too late. Citizens are often confused, cut off from each other and people that they trust. Physical communications systems often go down. The media is then effectively charged with keeping people informed, although it is wholly incapable of reconnecting a community’s citizens and institutions.
Online networks simply reinforce existing community connections. They do not have to be “social” but they should be informative. Citizens and business could join online networks in a way that enables them to first be informed, and second, to exchange information that allows them to quickly rebuild and reactivate their physical networks.
Timing is everything. If we could enable communities and regions to recognize their existing community relationships as assets – that can be easily activated, then as a government we would exponentially increase the resources available for disaster response, and further, would have less dislocation and disruption as well as quicker more efficient recovery.
That is why we should consider building out community citizen networks before disasters find us. We spend billions of dollars each year after the fact of disasters. What if we spent a small fraction of that in anticipation and prevention of their full impact? Wouldn’t it lessen the human hardship and financial costs of response and reconstruction?