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Innovation in Emergency Management: Canadians Charging Ahead

Jan 22, 2015
Desiree Matel-Anderson

Chief Wrangler
Field Innovation Team

From an American perspective, 2014 was an inspirational year for innovation in emergency management with the Field Innovation Team (FIT) deployed to a number of disaster-stricken communities to innovate in real-time with partner organizations.

Together, we developed a number of innovative ideas—including arranging for FAA-approved drones to survey a mudslide; using 3D printed topography maps for incident command; and employing social media transparency dashboards for donation accountability. These successful deployments involved many Canadian partners and volunteers. It was fun and extremely rewarding to be the “chief wrangler” of FIT in 2014.

However, we are not the only group driving innovation in emergency management. Canada has been doing some great work as well.

Over the past year, I attended roundtables, exercises, summits, and tours with several Canadian organizations, government agencies, and communities—all looking to explore how they can find new ways to deal more effectively with future disasters. This is a brief overview of three incredible Canadian emergency management initiatives that I had the opportunity to be part of in 2014.

1. Digital Volunteer Exercise in Halifax

In November 2014, Defence Research and Development Canada and a team of volunteers led an exercise on examining the role of digital volunteers as part of the Canadian Red Cross’ Disaster Management Forum in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Using the simulated impact of a hurricane striking the Canadian East Coast, this exercise brought together a range of digital volunteers, who worked side-by-side with government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The Canadians had already done a substantial amount of ground work by establishing a digital volunteer1 framework for the exercise. The event clearly demonstrated the value of incorporating digital volunteers into an emergency response and it further solidified social media’s role in obtaining situational awareness during emergencies.

From observing the exercise and the subsequent debriefs, it was clear that having senior leaders, such as a fire chief, engage directly with digital volunteers through social media was of benefit. Not only does the interaction provide those in command with valuable insights, it also reflects the notion that volunteers are valued and are being listened to.

Being able to check and verify sources quickly, especially when public health concerns were raised on social media during the exercise, was also crucial. It was amazing to observe these lessons being shared globally in real-time, through social media, as the exercise progressed.

2. Public Safety Canada’s Annual National Roundtable on Disaster Risk Reduction

Public Safety Canada held its Fifth Annual National Roundtable on Disaster Risk Reduction in Toronto, Ontario, in October 2014. The event provided a stakeholder platform for the United Nation’s Hyogo Framework for Action, with climate change as a key topic. At this event, I facilitated an open dialogue session with emergency management stakeholders, using a foresight approach—a technique regularly used to help organizations think more effectively about the future.

The ensuing dialogue inspired stakeholders in the room to think in the longer term and consider how we can take larger steps toward future disaster risk reduction. After all, climate change is a long-term issue and using foresight helped the participants to come to grips with this. It was apparent how important the future of emergencies and climate change is to a broad range of stakeholders. In fact, participants were so engaged that they did not want the dialogue to wrap up!

This lively debate made me reflect on the scarcity of open government forums where a transparent dialogue between citizens and government about disasters and emergency management is actively encouraged—an observation that had first struck me when I ran the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Think Tank program for a year.

This annual national roundtable in Canada is a great example of what can be learned and achieved when we are able to have open and honest dialogue with ourselves and our partners outside of government.

3. The Conference Board of Canada’s Study Tour—Hurricane Sandy

In May 2014, I flew to New York City to lead part of The Conference Board of Canada’s Centre for National Security (CNS) study tour to New York. While in New York, we rolled up our sleeves and got creative with innovators who had responded to Hurricane Sandy and had supported communities in innovative and unconventional ways.

During the tour, we interacted with emergency professionals in New York City’s Emergency Operations Center, learned about mesh networks for wireless connectivity and social media analysis in Red Hook, and spoke with designers who re-imagined the concept of disaster recovery centers in Manhattan.

The Canadians on this tour consisted of municipal, federal, provincial, and private sector emergency management professionals, all of whom were interested in learning about the role of innovation in emergency management. The enthusiasm and engagement during the tour showed just how open this group was to bringing innovation into Canadian emergency management. The Conference Board of Canada’s report from the tour, “A Hurricane of Innovation,” has captured the insights and lessons from these incredible innovation stories so that they can be shared with a wider audience.

If there is one lesson to be learned here, it would be that innovation in emergency management is no longer optional, but is a key component for building resilience to future disasters. The events above reflect how Canada and its emergency management professionals are a progressive inspiration for innovation in emergency management—something that Canadians can be rightly proud of.

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Related Webinar

Hurricane Sandy: Lessons Learned for Canadian Disaster, February 17, 2015 at 11:00 AM EST

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Get the latest insights on social media and its role in emergency and risk management at our conference in Ottawa on October 27 and 28, 2015.

About the Author

Desiree (Desi) Matel-Anderson is “chief wrangler” of the Field Innovation Team (@FITreadytogo). The team innovates real-time in disasters whether flying drones in mudslides to support responders, printing 3D topography maps for incident command, bringing art colonies to border crises, and rapidly prototyping many other cutting-edge solutions with communities. Desi was the first Chief Innovation Advisor at FEMA and Think-Tank Strategic Vision Coordinator. During her tenure at FEMA, she led the first innovation team down to the Hurricane Sandy disaster area to provide real-time problem-solving in disaster response and recovery. She also ran think-tank events nation-wide to cultivate innovation in communities, which have historically trended globally on social media during the event broadcasts.

1    A digital volunteer or virtual volunteer is an individual who completes tasks—in whole or in part, off-site from the organization or person being assisted—using the Internet and a computer, tablet, smart phone, or other Internet-connected device.

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