Disaster Recovery Volunteers Make a Difference

Disaster Recovery Volunteers Make a Difference

October 3

When the deadliest tornado outbreak in nearly a decade thrashed the state of Alabama in the spring of 2011, communities in rural Marion County were among the first to take a direct hit from a mile-wide, 132-mile-long EF-5 tornado. All businesses except one were damaged or destroyed in the small town of Hackleburg, including the police station and central telephone office.

From a makeshift operations center on the side of the highway, emergency responders struggled to manage the incident with no power, phone lines, or Internet connectivity, and limited cellular communications. Regional and state disaster resources were scarce, as tornadoes had also struck in the larger cities of Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, injuring hundreds and displacing thousands.

A mobile technology recovery center and disaster technology team were deployed from the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center in Fort Worth, Texas; staffed with a business analyst and systems engineer. Concurrently, a remote technology team provided situational awareness, established a disaster Web portal, and searched for local resources to help establish satellite communications.

The team drove more than 650 miles, and arrived about 40 hours after the tornado leveled over 75 percent of the town, killing 18. The incident command staff boarded the mobile technology recovery center, and established operations as the crew supplied generator power to the local telco to raise a trailer-mounted microwave tower; desperately needed to re-establish digital direct connect communications for emergency responders.

Once satellite communications were established to the mobile technology recovery center, a workgroup server and printer were deployed and workstations were issued to the incident management team. Onboard radios were programmed to local fire, police, EMS, and aircraft frequencies; as an air traffic controller from the Army claimed the last workspace in the mobile technology recovery center to manage the helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft searching for survivors.

IT Help to the Rescue

The arrival of technology resources in the remote town of 1,500 was a milestone and turning point in the disaster operation. Internet connectivity-enabled operations and logistics teams requested resources via Web forms and email; incident action plans and re-entry permits were developed and distributed electronically, and GIS coordinates for areas of interest were plotted and relayed to search teams.

Each member of the disaster technology team was a seasoned IT professional, but they were also volunteers.

With the marked increase in regional disasters, skilled volunteers are increasingly filling critical gaps left between government-provided services and community needs. Although basic humanitarian needs are traditionally met by larger organizations such as the American Red Cross and Salvation Army, there are many other continuity and recovery needs that remain unmet following a disaster.

History tells us that we are compelled to send donations or offer our resources in the first 7-10 days following a disaster, when media visibility is the highest. Unfortunately, affected communities are often in a state of shock during this timeframe, and are focused on damage assessment and restoring basic infrastructure. This timing disconnect often results in generous offers of assistance going unclaimed.

Members of the IT community can play a critical role in helping a community recover from disaster, both directly and indirectly. In addition to helping a nonprofit or small business recover their physical infrastructure, we are well positioned to become force multipliers or manage the sudden influx of resources and donations from the public to ensure they are properly documented and matched to local needs.

On the Ground or Remotely

Technology volunteers are unique in that they often have the option of assisting on the ground or remotely. Although hands are needed to deploy temporary infrastructure and repair damaged hardware in a disaster area; technical managers, analysts and developers can contribute on remote response teams by providing situational awareness, managing resource requests, or building portals for information sharing.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2011 report, about 64.3 million people volunteered through or for an organization between September 2010 and 2011. Volunteer hours often translate to dollars for both organizations, and communities. Over 130,000 volunteers helped Joplin, Missouri, in the year following a deadly tornado in May 2011, saving the city more than $17.7 million in disaster costs. Every volunteer hour contributed counted towards the community’s required match for federal recovery funds resulting in no out of pocket expense for the city.

Many companies also have corporate social responsibility programs which encourage employees to volunteer with local nonprofits. Harry Storey, an escalation manager at Microsoft in Irving, Texas, for 15 years has volunteered for several disaster-centric organizations. He chose the ITDRC since he works in the technology field, but also volunteers with a local amateur radio club and SKYWARN team, providing severe weather updates to the National Weather Service. His employer matches each volunteer hour with a donation to the organization.

“Try it,” said Storey. “To me it’s the most rewarding activity I’ve ever done in my life. ” Storey said one of his best volunteer experiences involved mentoring a group of economically disadvantaged individuals to successfully attain an industry certification, and subsequently technology jobs to improve their quality of life.

Reasons behind Volunteering

People volunteer for many different reasons, including professional and career development. Robbie Anderson was driving a charter bus in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, while attending community college last year. He studied computer science and was interested in pursuing a technology career, but didn’t have any real experience. Anderson volunteered with the ITDRC and worked with a mentor to hone his skills and earn an industry certification. His goal was realized within a year, and he now works on the support team at Dell.

Volunteer experience is generally accepted as real work experience. IT professionals can keep their skills sharp in between jobs by volunteering with a nonprofit. Since most organizations have similar roles to profit based companies, this presents a great opportunity to develop new skills and implement new technologies. Although flexibility is usually implied, there are typically deliverable deadlines to meet, much like in the corporate realm.

Opportunity to Give Back

Microvolunteering is also becoming increasingly popular, and enables skilled volunteers to donate a short amount of time to an organization or cause from their own desk. When the ITDRC was looking for input on a volunteer marketing campaign earlier this year, they posted a challenge on sparked.com. Several professional volunteers reviewed the request and provided valuable feedback, which is believed to have improved the success of the campaign.

Finding the “right” volunteer opportunity may take some effort, but any organization will be appreciative of your efforts. Whether you can only help one day a year to rebuild after a disaster, or prefer to volunteer five days a week delivering meals to the elderly; there are plenty of choices and many great nonprofits that need help. If you’re not sure, evaluate your skill set, and who may be able to benefit from your time.

Deshraj Singh, an IT manager for Hewlett Packard in Austin, Texas, joined the ITDRC after looking for an opportunity to “give back. ” He sampled other volunteer opportunities before he found an organization aligned with his technical aptitude. Singh enjoys solving problems with technology, and is able to network with other service oriented professionals from the same field. His employer also provides matching benefits to the nonprofit organizations he engages.

There are many personal and professional benefits to volunteering, but it’s tough to beat the satisfaction of helping a community or small business in their greatest time of need.

This article was originally published on Computing Now. It has been reprinted here with the author’s permission.