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NYC database launched

Disaster responders in New York City are hoping that a newly released emergency logistics and resource database will inspire more like it throughout the U.S.

BY HEATHER MOYER | NEW YORK | March 7, 2007

Disaster responders in New York City are hoping that a newly released emergency logistics and resource database will inspire more like it throughout the U.S.

New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS) recently unveiled its HOWCALM database. An abbreviation for "House of Worship, Communitywide Asset and Logistics Management," HOWCALM is aimed at providing just that sort of information to emergency responders in times of disaster.

HOWCALM, a secure Web-based database system, is a free community service that tracks logistics and resources of houses of worship, religious schools and faith-based service providers.

Peter Gudaitis, executive director of NYDIS, said HOWCALM was first opened to NYDIS' 1,600-member agencies. The next step is a three-month roll-out process to all five New York City boroughs.

"The system was built for multiple kinds of users," Gudaitis said. "Individual congregations can use it to track their own assets and resources. Judicatories and synods can use it to monitor every asset belonging to their faith community."

And when a disaster happens, the information can be made available to city and state emergency responders, he said.

HOWCALM offers a list of resources and assets available, including such things as whether a church is handicap accessible, facility floor plans, which members have kitchens, which faith groups have pre-existing day-care centers or health clinics and which groups have particular language skills.

That data is crucial in the early stages of a disaster, when agencies are coordinating their response and trying to stage supply distribution, volunteers, shelters and more, he said.

"Obviously the faith communities have entrusted this information to NYDIS, so we're making it clear on how it can and cannot be used," he added. "We're not going to allow the city to download the entire database. We want faith groups to understand it's a secured resource only shared with emergency management in crisis times when we deem it appropriate, or in planning issues we work with the city on."

He said the same goes for judicatories and faith group governing bodies that have access to HOWCALM. Those groups only have access to their own members' resources and Gudaitis said he hopes it inspires those entities to encourage their members to enter their data, as having that data available is just as valuable to them.

"We really want this to be perceived as a capacity-building tool for communities of faith to share," he said.

The city response to HOWCALM has been positive. The database also received praise from a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) representative.

"We've needed HOWCALM for 35 years," said Ken Curtin, a FEMA voluntary agency liaison, in a news release from NYDIS. "For disasters small or large, involving the faith communities is essential. They hold valuable information...Local faith organizations - churches, synagogues, mosques and temples - are an indispensable element in relieving peoples' disaster distress. HOWCALM will bring practical information to people, through their houses of worship, both before and after disaster."

HOWCALM already includes basic information about all the faith groups, houses of worship and religious schools in the city. The push now is to get each group to log in and update its information. Those who cannot do it electronically themselves can call NYDIS and give it the information to be entered.

"We're going borough by borough trying to hit all these multiple groups," Gudaitis said. "We've already sent out letters to each place from me, the American Red Cross and from each group's particular denomination leader (telling them about HOWCALM). Some will also get a letter from their borough president."

Other features of the database include downloadable search results.

If someone was looking for all the houses of worship on Fifth Avenue that worship in Spanish and have seating for more than 50 people, for example, "You can get that list and convert it to a PDF or Excel spreadsheet and download it," Gudaitis said.

The database also allows houses of worship to update a registry of homebound congregants.

"We're not messing (with privacy laws), we don't ask any information about the medical reason as to why someone's homebound," Gudaitis said. "We only ask whether it's because someone is wheelchair-bound, or bedridden or because of some other disability. We just want them to say that they're not capable of self-evacuating."

Gudaitis added that the congregations must maintain the registry and update it every six months or all homebound member names entered will be deleted.

HOWCALM had been in the works for two years and was inspired by the city's database of all local government resources, Gudaitis said.

He said he hopes a national model, or other local models, will be inspired by HOWCALM. Such databases can lessen the time and effort to obtain important information about faith-based emergency contacts, building locations and available facilities following a disaster, he said.

"This database gives instantaneous electronic access to every asset in the system. It's a really empowering tool for all users. It allows the faith community to be self-determined and to control the data itself. We are hopeful that religious leaders will share this vision and understand our plan on how useful this is."


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