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'Virtual warehouse' created

Not all warehouses take up physical space.


"It's just a new paradigm shift and it's where we need to be in this country."

—Jayne Stommel

Not all warehouses take up physical space.

Less cluttered than their material counterparts, "virtual warehouses," the disembodied, cyber-version of traditional warehouses, can sometimes prove more useful particularly when it comes to sorting out donations flowing into disaster areas.

Six Indiana counties (Marion, Morgan, Hancock, Johnson, Maddox and Monroe) are currently making use of a virtual warehouse, thanks to a program developed by Jayne Stommel, president of JWS Computer Consulting, and thanks, in a more remote way, to Sept. 11.

"It works like a dream," she said. "What it allows you to do is to have nothing more than a staging area, rather than warehouses or collecting areas for volunteers to mill around and wait for something to do with them."

The basic concept is simple: instead of physically sending donations to disaster response groups, do-gooders can log on to the Emergency and Rescue Services Support (EARSS) Web site and pledge to donate items. Then, when responders actually need the pledged goods, an e-mail is sent out, telling the donor to bring the goods to a staging area.

Stommel, a programmer of 25 years, who has done work for Eli Lilly and General Motors, never had a hand in disaster response until she watched the World Trade Center collapsing on television.

Then she decided to do something. Her decision was to eventually give birth to a Web-based computer program that is helping the six Indiana counties manage disaster donations.

Stommel and about 100 other volunteers decided to collect donations for Sept. 11 survivors in New York. Stommel quickly realized that goodwill can manifest itself in the form of truckloads of unneeded donations, and in poorly organized volunteer labor each of which can add more problems to the disaster than solutions.

Out of 30 tractor-trailer loads of goods she and new fellow volunteers collected, only 20 contained items that were needed. The other 10 had to be unloaded at warehouses in Indiana.

That was when Stommel began to realize that poorly planned-out donations programs could create a lot of unnecessary problems.

Stommel credits her epiphany to her fresh perspective on disaster response; she saw fixable problems where veteran responders saw only messy albeit unalterable facts.

EARSS didn't become fully operational until fall 2002. At first, it was a bit too complicated to be immediately useful, but Stommel quickly corrected the difficulties and streamlined the program.

Now the Web site offers a list of specific items that can be donated to the virtual warehouse.

The site also points disaster survivors to agencies and interfaith groups that provide assistance. In addition, volunteers can also match themselves with various relief efforts.

Besides running both JWS and EARSS, Stommel also serves as president of the Indiana Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, and she recently presented her ideas about virtual warehousing at the NVOAD conference in North Dakota.

Stommel hopes her idea will spread around the country. Given all the response she has received since she returned from North Dakota, that's not a very unlikely possibility.

"I have been so swamped since I got back from the NVOAD conference," she said. "The pledge concept is just a new concept. It's just a new paradigm shift and it's where we need to be in this country."

Stommel plans to spread the concept around with a public education campaign, to be run by Darrin Hill Maxwell, an EARSS volunteer and former emergency manager for Morgan County, Ind.

"Volunteer and donation management is something I have been very passionate about over the years. It's been very near and dear to me all these years," said Maxwell, who now works full-time as an EMT.

Maxwell plans to spread the news about virtual warehousing. He plans to "work with anyone nationwide and help them establish a system" and "work with groups ahead of time" in order to prevent an influx of unneeded and unnecessary donations and volunteers.

"We need to do a lot of public education in order for this to work," added Stommel. "The whole concept is designed to be used constantly not just during the disaster."

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