Harris County, Texas — The Harris County Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management launched its free ReadyHarris app in advance of the 2017 hurricane season in order to get timely information from emergency managers and public safety organizations to the community and media. Emergency apps can get life-saving information to residents in real-time.
“Embracing new technologies helps emergency management to connect, inform and ultimately save the lives of those impacted by disasters,” said Francisco Sanchez, public information officer for the agency.
Emergency apps, available in multiple languages, offer:
- Real-time weather alerts
- Step-by-step advice for building family disaster plans
- Survival tips
- Evacuation route maps
- Emergency services locators
“Every minute counts when severe weather, or any emergency, threatens our community,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.
Emergency Apps Increase the Impact of Good Planning
Sanchez, who StateScoop named one of its top public safety tech leaders to watch, advised partnering with social scientists to ensure that the emergency information governments push out has the most impact.
Harris County worked with EOC-ready to develop the ReadyHarris app as an emergency preparedness solution. EOC-ready has worked with a number of U.S. counties on emergency apps. The EOC Core System platform allows counties to push geo-targeted Federal Emergency Management Agency alerts, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather information, local news and more.
Through GIS integration, Harris County can also redirect app users to safe evacuation routes when roads are blocked or closed, and turn off unavailable or unsafe routes. Emergency apps also provide residents offline access to information about local hospitals, clinics, shelters and police and fire stations.
ReadyHarris users can also report incidents to the county’s emergency management agency during a crisis.
Automating Information Flow
Emergency management teams, despite the size of the community, have a lot of demands and responsibilities. Sanchez advised removing personnel from the flow of trusted information, and to automate information gathering and distribution processes.
We must automate how we capture and pass along trusted information, integrate how it is shared across multiple platforms and people and study the social science behind how we communicate it in a way that is relevant and actionable,” Sanchez wrote recently on StateScoop.
Without automation, personnel have to quickly interpret incoming data, vet it and repackage it before posting to their media channels.
“Too often, we serve as middle men to potentially life-saving information,” wrote Sanchez. Technology offers a way to sort the information that actually requires strategic thinking.
The Harris County Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management automates releases of weather alerts, real-time flood data and transportation updates from trusted sources, which puts the info into residents hands in real time through the app and other channels.
Sanchez said that an emergency management office with a talented tech team can engineer automated information solutions.
“At the most basic level, RSS can do the trick,” he wrote.
Integrating Public Safety Data
Under Sanchez’s leadership, Harris County became the first to launch a public safety broadband network. The county is expanding the network to provide first responders greater long term evolution (LTE) connectivity.
Instead of emergency management partners having to log on to multiple platforms to share the same information, Harris County integrates systems so the same information populates multiple platforms at one time — across transportation, public safety, health, utilities and medical resources. Connectivity is crucial to the flow of integrated information.
For example, in heavy, fast rainfall, affected areas in Harris County are likely to experience flooded streets. The county’s automated and integrated systems now push out information immediately, such as tweets about nearby streets expected to flood on multiple agency partner accounts serving the affected areas.
Thus, social media has become a critical component of the county’s hyperlocal emergency preparedness, response and recovery efforts.
“Our mission is to gather, analyze and inform. It’s a complex process that we have to make much simpler and effective because our elected officials expect it, our partners count on it and the public deserves it,” Sanchez concluded.