New tool tested by responders

A new software tool is poised to help long-term recovery committees across the nation cope with post-disaster information flow.

BY SUSAN KIM | DENVER | June 23, 2005

A new software tool is poised to help long-term recovery committees across the nation better handle the post-disaster information flow.

Gathering information in a sloppy way can lead to a second disaster - poorly tracked donations, missed needs and mishandled money.

A joint effort between the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR), United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), and Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota could help smooth the information-gathering process.

The Disaster Response Database (DRD) has been designed by people experienced in disaster response, explained LDR Director Heather Feltman. On the disaster site, “communication can break down and get a little chaotic.”

It tracks everything from the kinds of gifts and assets volunteers might have, to the amount of donated money, to the in-kind gifts available. “You can note that within this system,” said Feltman. “You can have all this information in one place.”

As the DRD evolves, its developers hope it will reflect all facets of long-term recovery, including client information, reconstruction and rebuild, and many other areas. No matter what type of disaster or where it strikes, recovery groups often end up asking the same question: “What kind of forms and systems do we need?”

The DRD has broad categories that subdivide into detailed sections, down to what chain saws or generators are available to borrow, and who has access to them. “Who has it? When can I have it? This will help people keep track of that,” said Feltman.

Ideally, the DRD will be used to keep track of what become complex processes as response grows. Construction information alone can quickly become overwhelming if it’s not organized. “This will house an overview of the entire rebuild job. All of the estimate pieces are in there.”

Information about volunteers can be housed in similar detail: “How many beds do I need to have? How long are they here? There is a wonderful section in here about the skills of volunteers.” Volunteer liability forms are also housed and ready to print.

On the front end, the DRD is compatible with the Needs Assessment Database currently in use by CRWRC assessment teams. CRWRC’s assessment teams - upon invitation from a community group that is recognized as a community disaster recovery committee - often fan out door-to-door at a post-disaster site, gathering information about people’s needs.

The Needs Assessment Database is a useful technical tool in what is really a very personal ministry, said Bill Adams, administrator for CRWRC’s disaster response services. If people are told to report to a certain location, they might not show up - and their post-disaster needs could get overlooked. Particularly for elderly people, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable individuals, a caring person showing up at the door makes a huge difference. Adams asked: “Would they have gotten out if you scheduled appointments at a central location?”

As CRWRC completes its assessments, the DRD can import 32 common fields from the CRWRC Needs Assessment Database. If CRWRC does not do assessments at a site, the DRD can also be used without the CRWRC piece. Client information includes demographics, financial details, rebuilding needs, and other information that will help caseworkers advocate for the client.

The DRD will also work with the Coordinated Assistance Network (CAN), an information-sharing network developed by several large nonprofit disaster response organizations in the wake of 9/11. CAN’s developers and DRD’s developers have a memorandum of understanding that aims to help the databases and users continue to work together as each system evolves.

"Our cooperation with CAN makes the DRD more useful," said Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR's executive for U.S. disaster response. "The information housed in CAN enhances the DRD by making information from other response agencies available at the click of a button."

But housing a ton of information doesn’t mean you have to produce complex reports nobody will want to read. The database is designed to customize reports that include only the relevant information. “It will help with consistency and accuracy in reporting.”

That, in turn, will help donors see how groups are investing their money.

The DRD is currently housed on a CD-ROM, though its developers envision making it Web-based. “The CD-ROM boots up itself. It’s very user-friendly and symbol-driven,” said Feltman.

Currently the DRD - now being used in the field - is evolving. “We are making enhancements,” said Feltman. Developers hope long-term recovery committees nationwide will eventually use the DRD.

"We have to find ways to grow this product," said Hazelwood. "That means not only getting more people to use it - but getting more people involved in the technical side of it and more people involved in training on how to use it. It will be necessary to have a pool of people who can offer technical assistance for this product."

After a community completes its disaster recovery, the recovery information can be stored for years, said Feltman. “We have had folks from Hurricane Andrew and the Red River flood that we could access recovery information on. There is a record management piece to this.”

Already, the DRD is in use at several post-disaster sites across the nation, and its developers are training more sites in how to use it. Training takes about 3-6 hours. “We are trying to build the capacity of who can do the training,” said Feltman.

The technology involved shouldn’t obscure the fact that this is a form of caregiving, said Adams. “The technology is not what we want to focus on. What we focus on is the ministry we bring to the community.”

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