Saturday, May 19, 2012

IT and Community Support

In March, the community of Henryville, IN was wiped out by an EF 4 tornado.  I was traveling at the time and watching the news from the Pacific Northwest and amazed at the extent of the destruction.  As I’m watching the images of devastation on TV I was also wondering what a geek like me could do to get involved.  Being a geek, I’m thinking about things like cell phone service and internet access and what my life would be like without those things.

When I returned home, I contacted our local emergency management agency, or TEMA – Tippecanoe Emergency Management Agency and asked how I could get involved.  The answer surprised me.  I was thinking my involvement would help those directly impacted by the disaster.  Instead, I was asked to support those helping those directly impacted by the disaster.

During the response at Henryville, the Indiana Department of Homeland Security realized they were lacking in IT support for the responders.  They were unable to provide basic IT services so the first responders could communicate, process paperwork, manage rescue efforts, and provide assistance to those impacted.  As I continued digging I found they were unable to share a network printer so if folks had to print, and they print a lot, they had to take their laptop to a printer with a USB cable and plug in to print, sometimes waiting line.  This slowed response times and communication with those in the field.  They had everything necessary to share the printer wirelessly they just lacked someone to make it all work.

This is basic IT support, even stuff I can do so I offered my services to TEMA and said if there was a disaster deployment and they needed help I’d be happy to show up and setup their printers and do anything else they needed.  I also indicated I could probably recruit other IT folks who would be happy to serve their friends and neighbors in need.  They took me up on my offer and invited me to a statewide training exercise in Southern Indiana so I could see what this was all about and learn how I/we could play a role.
Muscatatuck Urban Training Center
Since I often get in trouble while traveling alone I took a fellow IT friend along with me.  The plan was for Joe to do all the work while I took all the credit, ended up there was plenty to do to keep us both busy once we got started.

One of the first challenges to helping out was the paperwork.  I filled out tons of forms just to volunteer.  I’ve been to the White House 3 times, 2 of those times I met the President.  It was easier for me to get access to the White House than it was for me to volunteer to serve our state during a time of disaster.  I’ll explain how this will pay off for everyone later.

The second challenge was knowing what to do.  When we arrived, there wasn’t any one person to tell us what they needed.  We had to take initiative and setup things we knew would help everyone out.  This is where IT folks can really improve things as we know what’s possible and we know how to make that happen.  Once we started, it wasn’t long before everyone was asking for our help and even tracking us down so we could not only help our district but others.  Indiana is divided up into multiple Department of Homeland Security districts and each district is responsible for their own IT support.  More on that later too.

We also found that our district was well equipped with gear but not well equipped on how to use it.  They had a satellite internet provider and an access point that could broadcast for 3 miles.  We discovered it barely broadcasted 3 feet so we fixed it.  We also discovered that our district had an unactivated AT&T micro cell.  We worked to activate it to improve communications.  The training center was pretty isolated so we needed all the communications help we could get.  Besides, I needed to keep on top of Twitter.
While this may have been a drill, I found many ways where IT folks could quickly and easily serve their communities in a time of need. 

So my question to you is how would you like to be involved?  Here are some details.
  1. The paperwork is done.  The training exercise required more paperwork than an actual disaster as each person participating in the drill had to have credentials to access the base.  In the event of a real emergency, you would be added to a list of folks allowed into the command center.  Once there you would just identify yourself as IT support from Jonathan Smith at District 4 and get to work.  If a security perimeter has been setup your state issued ID will get you in.
  2. Each district in our state has its own strengths and weakness.  As a result, the state is encouraging them to share resources, including things like IT.  So instead of IT being something owned by each district it would be a shared resource.  This means you could help any district out regardless of where you live.
  3. Be prepared for some rough accommodations.  For the training exercises, we stayed in a hotel.  Were this a real emergency like Henryville we would have slept in tents or stayed wherever available.
  4. This won’t cost you anything.  Even though you are volunteering all costs associated with your travel, meals, and accommodations would be reimbursed. 
If you would be interested in helping please let me know.  I’m creating a list of IT pros from our state or neighboring states that would be available to help.  When there is an emergency, I would be notified by either our district or the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.  I would then communicate with our volunteer group and coordinate getting IT support on site as quickly as possible.  It may not always be me, Henryville happened while I was in Seattle but had we been organized we could have quickly sent folks there that live closer to Henryville than I do and helped serve the first responders and victims.
If you have questions or comments please post them here for all to see.  I’ll respond as best I can.  My dream would be to have IT pros within an hour’s drive of any site in Indiana so when the next Henryville hits we can quickly respond with top quality IT support and show our community that IT folks aren’t just interested in control and power but are willing and able to empower and equip those on the front lines, in some cases literally saving lives.

Thanks for your consideration.