Pan American Health Organization (PAHO)
Providing disaster managers with fast, inexpensive tools with which to communicate both before and after disasters can do as much to improve disaster management as traditional disaster preparedness techniques used for the last 20 years. Changing the way we communicate won't happen overnight. In fact, until recently, many generations came and went using the same limited communications tools. Our toolbox has grown substantially in the last two decades to include items such as fax machines, satellite telephones and now the Internet. The latter can have a dramatic effect on the way disaster managers do business.
Why Improve the Way we Communicate?
Getting people to communicate has become an important objective in at-risk cities throughout the Americas. This was borne of the realization that disaster managers were not communicating as much as they should. And disaster reduction in general could become the unintended victim. In fact, a certain scenario was becoming increasingly familiar: each year subregional meetings of disaster managers from the Ministries of Health of the Americas would be held -countries that generally share not only a history, a culture and a common language but also a common vulnerability to disasters. Following these annual gatherings, and full of good intentions, these disaster experts would return to their countries, and often not communicate with each other until the next face-to-face meeting. Aside from the heavy workload, other obstacles included the high cost of phoning colleagues or sending fax messages, particularly outside the country, and the centralized structure that exists in many agencies, where contacts between institutions are considered formal communiques and require a series of prior approvals. Just the process of requesting permission to make a call or send a fax, is counterproductive to the spontaneous exchange of information! And so, it became clear that the health sector and other key disaster managers needed to be able to communicate more quickly, cheaply and effciently.
What did disaster managers want? At a meeting of the six Spanish-speaking countries of Central America they expressed the following needs:
• Wider access to the Internet and the services it provides, at a fixed, affordable cost.
• Norms and policies in their national agencies that guarantee access to the Internet.
• The democratisation of information- everyone should have unrestricted access to the Internet and the freedom to decide what information they need.
A Solution for Cities at Risk
Strengthening the way we communicate is one solution for cities at risk. The countries of Latin America have chosen to focus on this as one way of improving disaster management by embarking on a project to create a "culture" of using electronic means of communication. The objective of this project is modest but clear: make access to basic Internet services such as electronic mail, FTP, and discussion groups available to a greater number of users instead of developing more sophisticated services for the few existing users. Disaster managers in at-risk cities need to keep in touch with professionals from many disciplines and agencies, and so this project is multisectoral. In addition to the health sector, it includes participants from civil defense, the Red Cross, parliamentarians and legislators, the Ministries of Planning, Development and Finance, and non-governmental organisations.
Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica (SCOTT ROWLAND)
In the major cities of each at-risk country:
• A lobbying effort targeted decision-makers in Central America and promoted the creation of an electronic disaster management network among health sector institutions and others involved in disaster preparedness and prevention.
• A study was made of the situation in each country in terms of Internet access (which varied widely from country to country) and the question of hardware. (It was not enough to convince the subregion's disaster managers of the benefits of electronic communications if they did not have the necessary hardware and a certain degree of technical support.)
• Potential participants were selected in each country from sectors that have an impact on disaster reduction. They were provided with access to the Internet and a subregional support group, and in some cases, with upgraded hardware. The project originally was designed to target an average of five persons per country, but where countries made a matching contribution, such as in Nicaragua, more than 25 disaster managers became part of the network.
Investing in human resources development and training is essential to changing the way people communicate. It can have the added benefit of contributing to the sustainability of any project of this type beyond its funded life.
• One or two-day training sessions were held in each of the six countries to introduce the
Internet and provide an overview of the practical applications of this technology. A cadre of trained trainers was left in place.
• A users manual and other training materials were developed to correct one of the problems faced by Internet users in Latin
America: the lack of Spanish-language information on the basic features of the
• A Spanish-language gopher mirror site was created and maintained by the PAHO office in Nicaragua to provide access to large quantities of text-based information (no graphics). At the close of the project, nationals took the initiative (without funding from the project) to create the first Spanish-language World Wide Web site on disasters in Latin America.
Because communication, both formal and informal, was at the core of this project, a listserv or electronic discussion group was introduced. In this age of information overload, many people cannot keep up with the messages circulating by means of hundreds of specialized discussion lists. But in Latin America, there was no Spanish-language discussion group for disaster managers. Under this project, the discussion group <email@example.com> was created and continues to be managed by PAHO in Nicaragua. It has approximately 100 members and provides a low-cost, quick vehicle for disseminating information of common interest on meetings, reports, training opportunities or requests for professional assistance. The abundance of professional information on damages and needs following the recent Hurricane Cesar in Nicaragua and Costa Rica testifies to the power of this tool. Cities at risk should consider this low-cost, high- yield form of communication for a variety of scenarios.
Without a doubt, at-risk cities in Central America are well on their way toward employing new communication technologies. Interestingly enough, unforeseen benefits also were realized: lobbying efforts that took place with the subregion's telecommunications industry have helped to accelerate the opening of Internet access in some countries, and high-level officials in sectors that have supported disaster preparedness and mitigation in the past have unofficially "loosened" procedures for communicating among agencies and across borders. Some of these activities, which were carried out with nominal funding but substantial enthusiasm and multisector participation, can be a solution for at-risk cities and countries that want to encourage disaster managers to maintain close contact both in normal times and in emergency situations, and thus improve the way disasters are managed.
Please make any comments or exchange strategies you have for encouraging people to talk to each other and for at-risk cities to make maximum use of the Internet.
1. There is more to communicating than just simply exchanging or circulating information. What can be done to make a discussion group truly interactive --a forum for professional debate?
2. Discussion groups can make a significant contribution to disaster management. But are they more useful before and after disasters than in the midst of an emergency situation?
3. What are the pros and cons of a moderated discussion group (where someone sorts through potential "junk mail") vs. a free and open exchange of information where every thing is circulated?
4. Pagers, the fax machine, the cell phone- are you overloaded with information? What type of information to improve disaster management do you look forward to receiving or find useful?