In times of emergency, the ability to respond quickly, to draw on accurate, centrally-managed and readily-available information, and for numerous agencies to come together as one is imperative.
The need for an integrated EMIS (emergency management information system) to handle both national and local events and incidents has existed for some time, with New Zealand’s civil defence sector “shouting out” for a solution for many years. As part of a formal response to flooding in the North and South Islands in February 2004, an independent review found that New Zealand needed greater information management capability in order to respond to crises more effectively. This finding was echoed by real life events and emergency response exercises, and an exhaustive journey towards finding and implementing a nationwide EMIS – the first system of its kind to encompass an entire country within its remit – began.
With the wellbeing of affected people in times of emergency as its chief concern, and a need to find a tool that could cater to the needs of many different agencies (including the Ministry of Civil Defence & Emergency Management (MCDEM), 16 regional Civil Defence Emergency Management Groups and all local territorial authorities), the quest for an EMIS with national scope was a massive task. The need for a national emergency management information system was well understood, but delivering a watertight solution that meets the needs of all three tiers, and does so in critical circumstances, would – by virtue of the sheer importance of the function it needed to perform – prove to be complex, challenging and timeconsuming. The fact that the project’s progress was also competing with real-life emergencies, in particular the Christchurch earthquakes, also meant that the project team needed to divert focus relatively frequently.
David Coetzee, MCDEM’s Manager Operations/National Controller, says:
“We were breaking new ground. It was a huge undertaking and it hadn’t been done anywhere on a national scale before, so no precedent existed. We needed a three-tiered system (covering national, regional and local streams of activity all in one place) where everyone would have access to information and manage it through the one tool. Before now, everyone has done their own thing, which resulted in a great lack of consistency in our processes and in the way in which we present information.”
As custodian and leader of the new system, MCDEM needed to represent the civil defence sector and ensure their needs were met. Embarking on rigorous RFI and RFP selection processes, MCDEM finally chose the SharePoint-based E*SPONDER solution for its robustness and flexibility, as well as its ability to handle the crucial three-tier concept.
“The fact that it was SharePoint-based was attractive because it is very configurable by the end user – it doesn’t necessarily need a lot of new code being written to enhance its use. And the fact that it is Microsoft-based gave us some comfort in terms of development, availability, ease of use and the familiarity of the Microsoft environment. Those were the clinchers for us,” David says.
After a long journey of intensive configuration and customisations, New Zealand now has its own EMIS with already more than 700 registered users – a number that will still be growing. The system will give users an instant view of an incident through alerts and mapping; it will provide the ability to share critical information, request assistance, manage taskings and resources locally, regionally and nationally by communicating vertically and horizontally.
The greatest strength of the EMIS, however, lies in its ability to provide real-time access to information.
“There is nothing as bad as being in an information vacuum, especially in a time of crisis,” David says. The system will make critical information accessible to all. This will enable us to make better, more informed decisions faster, and that’s what it’s all about.
“We now have everything in one basket, which means consistency in process, procedures and format – you can walk into an environment and understand it. Everything is on record in the same system and everything is traceable. As part of the EMIS we also have a new resource database, a new displaced people register and a contacts management database, all in the one place,” he says.
A picture paints a thousand words, as they say, and the ability to get a complete, real-time view of a situation and drill down into detailed information, with everyone on the same page and equipped to make timely, informed decisions, will be an invaluable asset for the civil defence sector and New Zealand in general.