COVER STORY: Emergency networking
The inherent flaw with emergency preparedness is that there’s seldom an emergency happening while one is preparing.
Case in point: May 11, Capilano elementary school. That afternoon, the 450-student school staged a dry run of its emergency release drill to test its ability to get students out of the building and to their families in a timely fashion.
The results were good. According to Jennifer Wilson, nearly three-quarters of the students were released within 90 minutes.
“It went really smoothly,” says Wilson.
“We were quite excited. It gives us confidence in the fact that there is enough people picking up.”
Of course, admits Wilson, most of the adults involved drove to the school that day and most lined up promptly at 1 p.m., the time the drill was scheduled to begin. If there was a real emergency, parking the car on a tree-lined street in Pemberton Heights and calmly queuing behind the school’s gym may not have been such an easily executed exercise.
But that’s the thing with emergency preparedness, isn’t it?
Best laid plans
Capilano elementary, like all schools in the North Vancouver School District, has a strictly enforced student release scheme. Inside the gym, parents — or other adults, known as alternates, who are authorized to collect the students — line up in front of tables marked with the letter corresponding to their last name.
Once it’s their turn, they show ID, a representative from the school checks the form they have on file and then fills out a separate slip of paper outlining when the child left the school and with whom.
The adult is then given a sticker with the child’s name — that adult could be given more than one sticker, depending on how many children they are tasked with picking up — and a Grade 6 student goes to retrieve the child. As the student is brought to the adult, he or she is also given a sticker with their name on it. If the sticker matches the one worn by the adult, they are let out of the gym.
The system, as they say, works.
But this drill was a bit different. This year, Cap elementary is involved in an emergency preparedness experiment: Use the electronic contact forms created by the North Vancouver-based firm ePACT.
“Traditional paper forms, one of many forms, are sent home at the beginning of the year and not all come back,” explains Wilson.
“And then we’re chasing down forms. If an emergency happens in that time, we’ve got nothing on hand. The paper copy is not always here.”
Fukushima, Japan is about 300 kilometres from Tokyo, about an hour-and-a-half ride on the bullet train. On March 11, 2011, Ayumi Takeuchi, a Fukushima native, was in Tokyo on business. After a day of meetings, Takeuchi hopped in a cab and began making her way to the train station. It was 2:40 p.m.
About six minutes later, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake rattled the southeastern coast of the country for more than four minutes. Traffic screeched to a halt. She reached for her cellphone. Nothing. Trains? No chance. Her only choice was to head over to a friend’s place and wait out the chaos.
It was 24 hours before Takeuchi was able to connect with her family via the Internet. Everyone was okay, she learned, but Takeuchi remained in Tokyo, unable to return to Fukushima because portions of the town’s nuclear power plant were going into meltdown. It took three days for her children and parents to join her in Tokyo.
ePACT is the brainchild of Christine Sommers and her business partner Kirsten Koppang Telford, both veterans of the web world. In 1995, Koppang Telford befriended Takeuchi while she was living in Japan for work. And it was Takeuchi’s story that sparked a discussion, more than 7,000 kilometres from where so many suffered, about whether we are ready to handle an emergency in our own backyards.
“The impetus behind this really was Kirsten’s friend [Takeuchi] surviving the Fukushima disaster,” says Sommers.
“So, we started talking about emergency preparedness.”
From the brainstorming came ePACT, an online communication network — think Facebook for disasters — aimed at connecting organizations and families to ensure a greater level of preparation in the event of an emergency.
How it works: Each family is invited by, say, the school their children attend to join the network. The school requires the standard information such as the child’s address, medical information and the names of their guardians and alternates. That data is completed by the family and submitted. The information on the alternate guardians is then confirmed by whomever was selected by the family to fill that role.
Each school also has its own dashboard where teachers or administration staff can track each student, ensuring all information is received. Any changes made are also seen immediately. Families, as well, can set up their own personal networks without being invited by a specific institution.
At no point can those at ePACT see any of the information being shared. They provide the service and host the data. All data is hosted in Canada and to ensure information is available during large-scale disasters such as earthquakes, backup servers are located in Ontario.
A similar scenario is in place for organizations who choose to implement ePACT for its employees as businesses — typically via the human resources department — often ask a similar set of questions of their staff.
And this is the realm in which ePACT hopes to make its money. The service will be free for families but organizations will have to license a module specific to them and pay a per-person fee.
“So many organizations ask this but it often comes at a time when people are giving out so much information with new jobs for instance,” says Koppang Telford.
“But we don’t think about it at the time, maybe. And how do you update? Is that easy? Where do you go?”
Thus far, ePACT has only undertaken trial runs in North Van schools. But, naturally, the plan is for more. A full launch is scheduled for the fall and, recently, Koppang Telford and Sommers approached City of North Vancouver council to propose a trial run of their product to the municipality.
Both Sommers and Koppang Telford say the city could benefit from using ePACT in places such as daycares, community centres and city hall.
City councillors, however, were quick to ask how ePACT would work with the North Shore Emergency Management Office, the municipally-funded organization charged with all facets of emergency preparedness on the North Shore. Sommers says ePACT would compliment the services offered by NSEMO and add “another layer to what they’re doing.”
Dorit Mason, director of NSEMO, echoed those sentiments, lauding anyone working to equip residents for emergencies as engaging in a worthy pursuit. But Mason also stressed her group’s basket of services, from their workshops to their rapid notify system, which sends text messages to subscribers alerting them to in-progress emergencies. Unfortunately, Mason says, NSEMO’s electronic service hasn’t grown as quickly as she’d like.
“It’s progressing slowly,” says Mason.
“We’d prefer there to be more people using it.”
And therein lies the gap ePACT hopes to fill. By harnessing the power of the Internet and social media, Sommers and Koppang Telford hope to make planning for emergencies as easy as possible. That isn’t to say ePACT would render a crisis worry-free. It can’t. But it is one more tool to help.
“If you can get to the community and prepare the community,” says Sommers, “the better off we are.”