By |2019-06-19T12:55:20+00:00June 19th, 2019|0 Comments

Power of Cross-Sector Collaboration for Economic Recovery in Disaster Response

Satellite communications facilitates connectivity in remote communities.

Effective disaster response requires expertise across a wide range of sectors. How various sectors interact and exchange information can be critical to a positive outcome. Often, each sector having operated within its own domain, has limited visibility into other sectors until reporting out to senior leadership. This often results in excellent work within a narrow “silo” of that domain, but leaves room for improvement in the overall picture, helping the communities impacted by a disaster. 

FEMA has recently incorporated “community lifelines” into their National Response Framework. These community lifelines seek to improve the efficacy of work done within the sectors by ensuring a purposeful connection to the benefit of the impacted communities. 

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Figure 1: FEMA’s Community Lifelines 

FEMA’s seven community lifelines also makes it easier to exchange information across domains. The response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico demonstrates the importance of effective collaboration and quick information exchange across domains.

In the early response efforts, government and non-profit organizations worked to support the distribution of food and water into communities impacted by the storm. It might seem simple to determine whether a community has access to food and water, but the reality is more complicated.

 Following the hurricane, local infrastructure was left devastated. ATMs were out of commission and point of sale (POS) terminals in stores could not process credit cards or food stamp (EBT) card transactions. Even though many community grocery stores were stocked with food and water and generators to keep perishables refrigerated, members of their community were unable to purchase supplies. As a result, these people were supported by government and non-profit aid distributions.

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Figure 2: Photo by Staff Sgt. Elvis Umanzor; (https://www.dvidshub.net/image/3825485/fema-dod-coordinate-food-water-distribution-juana-diaz-puerto-rico)

Small business owners stood watching from their stores as their customers visited distribution centers to collect the very supplies that filled their shelves. We met with the owner of a grocery store on Culebra. He had to watch as his customers lined up at city hall to collect aid from government and non-profit organizations.

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Figure 3: Photo by Steve Birnbaum; Contents of the grocery store Colmado Milka on the island of Culebra after Hurricane Maria that customers were unable to purchase.

Seen through a narrow lens, the aid distribution was effective at providing access to supplies. When the perspective widens across community lifelines, the negative impacts over time become apparent: perishables are at risk of spoiling, business owners lose revenue at a time when they need it most and employee salaries go unpaid causing a cascading impact for many more families. The longer this continues, the longer it will take to restore local economic activity and stability.

During previous disaster recovery efforts, food and water distribution would continue parallel to economic recovery. Eventually, both would achieve their objectives, albeit independently. The food and water sector would see the problem as a lack of available food. The communications sector would see a general lack of communications. Seen collectively, this becomes a single, inter-dependent challenge. It becomes a food and water problem because of poor communication.

In order to help address this challenge, I had the opportunity to help build a collaborative effort that involved all levels of government, private sector and non-profit organizations to address this challenge. With the collaborative participation of the CIO of the Government of Puerto Rico, the Department of Family Affairs, FEMA, Tactivate, Focused Mission and the Foundation for Puerto Rico, we embraced an entrepreneurial spirit that helped restore economic activity and enabled communities to solve their own supply challenges. In doing so, the need for continued supply distribution was reduced or eliminated in these communities.

Knowing it would take time to restore mobile networks in the worst-hit regions of the island we reduced the size of the technical problem, focusing only on connectivity for POS/EBT terminals. POS terminals require very little bandwidth to process transactions, making the problem easier to solve.

Given the remoteness of the communities we were targeting and the island’s topography, we opted to use satellite communications for connectivity. We made use of satellite-based products designed for low-bandwidth IOT, also known as machine-to-machine communications. The terminals we deployed cost a modest $1,500 each and could be quickly installed Within minutes of installation, stores were able to accept credit and EBT cards, allowing customers to purchase much-needed supplies.

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Figure 4: Photo by Steve Birnbaum; Installation at a grocery store on the island of Culebra. Inset photo: Installation on a grocery store rooftop in Orocovis.

The owner of the only grocery store in the town of Castaner told us a moving story. Out of concern for the welfare of his employees and their families, he used money from his life savings so that he could continue to pay their salaries when customers could not purchase from his store. He also told us of customers who pleaded with him to barter or take “IOUs”. After a quick installation, his neighbors could once again obtain what they needed from his store; money was again flowing in this small community; the road to economic recovery had begun. It is easy to lose sight that our objective is to help people and communities return to their normal routines and restore their livelihoods.

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Figure 5: Photo by Steve Birnbaum; Team photo with the owner of the grocery store in Castaner.

Analyzing usage data, a modest investment of $20k in communications equipment had enabled well over $1M in credit card and EBT transactions at grocery stores within a few weeks. As the project progressed, the Department of Family Affairs added additional funds to Puerto Ricans’ EBT accounts, offering residents more purchasing power to re-stock and put more money back into local economies. Reductions in aid distribution by ground and air also allowed for more efficient disaster response funding in other areas.

There is no universal technical solution. In other environments, a different technical solution to a similar problem might cost even less. In addition to satellite-based solutions, there are products available that integrate high-gain antennas with cellular modems, enabling connectivity to mobile network signals that are otherwise too weak to use with normal device antennas. 

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Figure 6: Photo by Steve Birnbaum; Connectivity restored to a point of sale terminal.

A successful outcome could not have been achieved without the active participation of a team that included corporations, entrepreneurs, non-profit organizations, and government. A cross-sector approach can identify and address challenges, often resulting in better outcomes.

When applied to preparedness, it is possible to envision that a similar approach can result in more resilient communities, with all stakeholders better equipped to face future disasters. Advanced preparation with resilient communications for the retail sector can help to minimize interruptions in their ability to supply their communities that are caused by interruptions to infrastructure during an event.

The traditional approach of working within narrow sectors may not always be the best way to achieve results. It might not always identify the right problem to solve. Increased collaboration and the use of cross-sector approaches can result in faster and more optimal resolutions. Incorporating FEMA’s new community lifelines, maintaining an open-minded and entrepreneurial spirit, and demonstrating a willingness to employ a cross-sector approach enables a more effective community-focused approach to disaster preparedness, response, and recovery.

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About the Author:

Steve Birnbaum is the President of Resudox Solutions. He has over 20 years of technical, operational, and executive experience in the global telecommunications industry. He specializes in strategy consulting and the management of complex projects, often in austere environments. He has deployed to numerous major global disasters, and currently serves as a volunteer firefighter and USAR technician in Montgomery County, MD. Steve also serves on several DHS and Department of State emergency telecommunications and first responder technology advisory groups. He may be reached via email: [email protected] or www.resudox.net or LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/steve-birnbaum/

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