Proposal For Creating 911 Websites For Emergency Information, Communication

from the could-work dept

Whenever there are disasters, such as earthquakes or hurricanes, many people quickly go online to try to find out more information or to see if there are ways to check on the condition of family or friends. Often a bunch of informal “emergency” websites spring up (often volunteer-based) that feed important information and become something of a de facto standard. Now there’s a new suggestion (soon to be a pilot program) that US communities create special emergency sites for exactly this purpose. The two lecturers behind the idea compare it to the 911 system that people call in emergencies. In this case, though, people would just go to a special website, where official information would be provided and (more importantly) people could register and add their own information about what was going on, or if there were certain problem areas that needed help. It would combine the idea of an official emergency information site (and standardize where it would be) with concepts normally associated with citizen journalism. There are some concerns about “vandalism” of such a site — but the team behind this idea thinks that it can be contained. It seems like an idea that makes a lot of sense — though there are still some questions about exactly how it works, who has access to it and how people will learn about the site’s existence. Hopefully these will become clearer as the pilot program moves forward.

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Eric Samson says:

Contained? What, "vandalise HERE please"?

“There are some concerns about “vandalism” of such a site — but the team behind this idea thinks that it can be contained.”

This is absurd. Either you let everyone write what they want, in which case you will get vandalised, or you protect your site and no one gets to write anything that’s not checked by a human beforehand. “Containing” vandalism is not a solution, especially not when we are talking about emergency situations where peoples’ lives could be in danger.

David B says:

Great Idea - Details need work

It would be great to have a national 911 web site, but everyone doesn’t need to be able to update it. State and local governments already have protocals on who can authorize resources, etc and that chain of control would just need to be followed for a web site.

Just the fact that people would know where to look for updated information or to offer help without calling everyone would seem to be a major help.

You never know says:

David, I think you’ve got the idea, but take is one small step further. From the site open a dialog box so reports and inquiries may be posted. A staff can then sort out the vandalism and with registration requirements would be able to filter anyone once they have been labeled an antagonist. If we’re going to waist tax moneys I would rather see it used in a positive and highly public manner like actively protecting the people and improving our emergency preparedness.

security (user link) says:

The Definite The Need for This

This is fate and will be instituted.

It is vital that society fully utilizes The Internet for Emergency preparedness and information sharing.

The importance of this was never better illustrated than in the recent US tragedies of the World Trade Center and The Katrina Disasters – hopefully, this can soon be extended Worldwide.

Iron Chef says:

Woah Nelly

On the surface, it seems like a great idea, but personally, as I peeled away outer surface, there are many issues which could make this into a logistical nightmare. First off, the current archetecture for the 911 system is too distributed. We have over 6,500 PSAPs (Public Safety Answering Points) across the US.

The level of effort required to engage each PSAP, muich less maintain and update the data can be a major issue. Additionally, in this sue-happy world, if a single city had incorrect phone/contact information I imagine a lawyer would be happy to start a class action lawsuit.

Also, How do you maintain this data, and ensure that only authorized changes are made, and protected from terrorists/hackers?

It seems that the added value is miniscule in compairison to the implementation and operating costs in comparison to just picking up the phone and dialing 9-1-1.

Meoip says:


I see a need for this but I think it will be to cumbersome. Oh look my house was destroyed in a flood. Eventually I will get to a computer where one a few scenarios will happen.
1) I forget my stupid password how will I get logged in? I’ll request a new one and a day later get an email with my new password.
2) I need a current address to log in, oh wait my house just blew away in a tornado. I hope they don’t send me any mail.
3) Someone already took sugerbear123 as there username how will my family ever find me?

That aside if the system is scaled and to work only in zones which are under emergency status ( I can’t log on in in Texas right now and use all of) then it becomes more useful. I also see this system as easy to overwhelm, If another hurricane hits and half a million people register in a day the site will likely die especially when on top of that a few million family members log on to check on the status of folks. The site would crash like a pile of bricks or require a huge amount of bandwidth to be on hand.

Or….I preregister with all my info (address, office location, medical needs, who can see my status (I have to list who can check it)) and when a disaster hits the system puts my info page into emergency mode and says my status is unknown until I log in. That way when a blizzard comes up and my area looses power it notifies the police that I am on oxygen and will need help. This also means my brother on the other side of town can check up on my and see that the police have arrived and I’m at a shelter.

lizard says:

Re: Need

@Moip —

1. it mails you the p/w instantly. maybe a few minutes’ delay, tops.

2. um, what?

3. advanced search functionality in which your loved ones (who presumably know a thing or two about you, like your full name, street you live(d) on, etc etc can pull up a list of posts matching your details. it’s fairly straightforward

the worst thing i see is the flood of spammers that would follow any disaster — “refinance your viagra and meet hot singles in your area with rooms to rent” and whatnot. but i agree that that could be contained.

since volunteers have been able to make significant contributions in the past perhaps we can look to them as a resource, like any other volunteer group that is ready to go in an emergency (firefighters, aid workers) — only this time, a volunteer geek brigade.

we don’t need to staff a whole new set of emergency response centers, we just need to organize and expand on what’s been done in the past.

Anonymous Coward says:

The only people that should have access to post are the emergancy operators you get a hold of when you dial 911. Or at least their supervisor there as the others will probably be dealing with calls.

Chances are however you’ll have to create a new job at these places since they want you to be able to upload pictures and what not. Quite frankly, thats a stupid idea. If our rescue efforts were more organised, it would be easy to have the supervisor post a list of MIA people on the site. However the way things work now, rescuers don’t know WHO they rescued most of the time.

Also in the event of a flood/hurricane/tornado the 911 call center could possibly be hit so sending in photos and stuff, which not everyone could do anyways… not everyone has a laptop/pc to upload pictures and email and I doubt the postal service will be working when there are no houses let alone mailboxes.

The idea is good, they just want to do too much more than is possible at this time. And they want to give access to way too many people. They do that, they WILL get vandalised. Granny will go to the site expecting to find out how her family is and sees

They would have to create a lot of jobs for censors when they don’t need to. And it would have to be a round the clock job as well. Just sitting there hitting F5 or looking through hundreds of submissions. Least they can try to track the person who sent it in and charge them for a false report or something.

Brian (profile) says:

don't get it

Somebody please give an example of an emergency situation where a web site can help you. Seriously.

I’m in New Orleans. All the websites in the world wouldn’t have helped anyone during Katrina. Who had electricity? ISP? It was almost 4 weeks before my electricity came on, and another week before my cable was restored. Battery-operated radio was all there was, period.

The tornados last week missed my house by about 50 feet. Amazingly, I never lost electricity in that event. Logging onto a web site was the last thing on my mind at 2:36am when the sirens sounded – flipped on the TV and saw that I had 6 minutes before the first one hit my block.

What I fear from such an idea is exactly what killed us during the immediate Katrina response: unverified, exaggerated rumors being repeated as fact by the Nat’l Media simply to pump up ratings. That killed people, pure and simple. Citizens were prevented from launching their own boats to rescue people because of the vast (absurd) reports of rescuers being shot at, attacked, etc…

Here’s a suggestion: let’s mandate that any such 911 site can have no advertising whatsoever. No profit can be made by anyone from such a site. Then see how many people are left proposing this nonsense.

Tyshaun says:

can't hurt, but...

As a former medic (who was in NY on 9/11) and web developer (some of the times) I have kind of a unique perspective on this. I can’t see any real problems with having except this except the fact that the public expectations of the information accuracy shouldn’t be pumped up too high, for a couple of reasons:

1. As it was mentioned, the infrastructure in the area affected will more than likely be affected (electricity, telephone lines, cable lines, etc) so it’s likely that any entries made about a person/family will be done some time (maybe substantially) after the subjects are found, rescued, treated for medical issues, and given access to a computer/person with a computer to enter in the information. On a large scale incident, this could literally be days. Their were documented cases of people being rescued from the 9/11 site, taken to a hospital and being their almost a week before they could be identified and family notified (and these are the living, we are still reading about some of the remains from the site haven’t been identified because of the arduous nature or DNA identification/putting the pieces back together).

2. You can’t rely on any member of the current first response mechanism to be adequate data gathers in the “heat” of an incident because their primary focus is on saving as many lives as possible. Collecting biographical data on people may be next to impossible unless their is a seemless integration of front line data entry personnel into the system (as in people in the ambulances/emergency rooms, at the morgue, and in the site survey teams). Again, this presents a logistical and financial nightmare to have enough “surge” staff to do this work (in addition to the first responders needed). Which would you rather see, more money for more ambulance workers or more money spent on data entry people “just in case” an incident occurs?

3. There are serious privacy concerns about how to get/document consent of a person to publish information potentially about their property damage, medical injuries, or current disposition. Aside from stuff like HIPAA for medical disclosures what about the weird cases like people who may not want to be found by others (like people with restraining orders and such)?

4. Part of what is being suggested is already included in the roles of organizations like FEMA and The Red Cross. I say it would be more worthwhile to update/upgrade their capabilities.

5. This is the most important point, there would have to be a system for maintaining and verifying data integrity. I think any open access system, like a Wiki sponsored by the federal government is almost a recipe for disaster. I can imagine people entering in fraudulent data to get checks for living expenses from their insurance company (and later on saying they put in the request based on the information on the site). I can imagine people being falsely reported as dead (or alive) and families taking action based on that information. Now, the scenarios above are not a big concern when the information is derived from an ad-hoc “volunteer” site, because there is a lack of “officialness” to the information. Once a state/federally sponsored website starts reporting information, without mechanisms to first verify the integrity and accuracy of that data, you are entering into a world of problems.

Iron Chef says:

Web possibly not best media for emergencies

I agree with Brian. It’s tough to imagine that in a true emergency, you would (or even could) wait for a computer to boot up, jump online to find emergency contact information.

Most people are in such emotional distress already that they can’t even tell the 9-1-1 operator where they are on a cell phone (hence the reason for e911/ embedded GPS solutions for phones.)

I agree that there may be a need for some type of web reporting, possibly a “I’m OKAY” site, but should this be managed using public funds? Maybe it should be maintained via Red Cross/United Way, etc.

Mike says:

Been here... Done this...

During brush/forest fires here in Southern California, most Incident Management teams put up websites almost instantly that are handled by the Police/Fire Information officers. In Ventura County, LA County, Riverside County and most CDF Units, a page with basic info detailing the who what wheres, and the ciritical info like evacuations and areas threatened are posted as quickly as possible.

Here is a link to the Ventura County SO’s page that they put up for the Day fire:

This is for the local newspaper which had links and info from various agencies that are needed in large scale incidents like shelter numbers and such:

One of the better “Community run” websites is done by which created

Here is their Grand Prix fire page

As a former medic, Tyshaun, you and others should know that every medium to large department has a PIO/FIO whose job is specificially to notify and interface with the public and media so that Incident Commanders, First Responders and Emergency Call Takers/Dispatchers don’t have to. Depending on the area and size of the dept, there is absolutely no reason a system can’t be implemented that allows the PIO/FIO to put pertinent information on a website.

As for the community volunteer aspect, it all depends on the area and the needs. No one template fits every area in a country our size.

Tyshaun says:

Re: Been here... Done this...

As a former medic, Tyshaun, you and others should know that every medium to large department has a PIO/FIO whose job is specificially to notify and interface with the public and media so that Incident Commanders, First Responders and Emergency Call Takers/Dispatchers don’t have to. Depending on the area and size of the dept, there is absolutely no reason a system can’t be implemented that allows the PIO/FIO to put pertinent information on a website.

You are right and wrong at the same time Mike. Of course most largerr systems have PIOs (in fact, even small ones do, it’s usually some officer designated for said task, or the chief). The problem is that all of the incidents you described are relatively “static” sets of information (contact numbers, designated evac areas, etc). I thought the suggestion would be to better facilitate “real time” census and “where are they” information, of which your reference links still don’t fulfill.

So yes, absolutely it is very easy to have a website come up with evac info and contact numbers, because it’s static information that should be already laid out in the emergency plans anyway, my concern was for setting up web sites to be able to (without the intervention/filtration of a designated government official) disseminate real time data about emergency incidents, specifically patient information. I see nothing in your reply that negates my point at all but also nothing that adequately deals with using “citizen volunteers” to implement a real time victim information system.

Btw, I was a PIO in my department for a bit and I can tell you that if they are doing their job well, 99% of the time the information that is released to the public is already dated because at the very least it has been verified and cleared for release, which I think is part of the “problem” the profs original solution was attempting to address, more timely information flow.

Tyshaun says:

Re: Been here... Done this...

Mike said:

As for the community volunteer aspect, it all depends on the area and the needs. No one template fits every area in a country our size.

Your statement encapsulated the biggest problem that was outlined by the incident summaries from NY on 9/11, namely the lack of available communications and the ability of agencies to communicate and work effectively.

It is very easy to say that a website system like this should be geared on a community level, but what defines a community? A State? County? City? Individual neighborhoods? That isn’t such an easy question to answer because the nature of a disaster may “break” the boundaries of a community, so how do you guarantee that information can be shared and aggregated across communites? The only way I can think of is standardized databases and procedures for updating them. This is the major impedus behind all the emergency preparedness spending as of late, to not only have equipment and people in place across the country to deal with disasters but also have the ability for various agencies to communicate and share information.

Without some sort of standardization, you could run into all kind of weird things like if community A has an incident and people are evacuated to community B, who is responsible for publishing information about the evacuees? Which website should loved ones be directed to go to?

Unfortunately, the world of first response is still a collection of individual “fiefdoms” where most agencies seldom plan and lay down logistics to work with other agencies (even within the same community sometimes). Standardizing things like radio frequencies or information website data stores is a great way to break down those “walled gardens” and it’s a win for all parties involved.

What was that phrase “Think globally, act locally”

Nick D (profile) says:

Sorry, I do not want to spend my tax dollars on this. As we saw with Katrina, the best websites for this purpose emerge, their quality and usability spread through word of mouth, and then someone aggregates all of the data. Why should we as tax payers pay for just another player in the emergency aggregation/information site when a better one might emerge? Remember
The internet is an open market for information, and official government stamps do not guarantee the best information.

Brian (profile) says:

Since my first post, I’ve been trying to think of an answer to my own question: what emergency would make this useful?

I can think of a couple: maybe a biological attack, chemical spill, etc… i.e. an event that doesn’t disrupt electricity, but one in which you’d want to stay indoors until you had alot of info.

Then it occurred to me that we already have such a system in place, and it’s already FAR more efficient than anything web-based could ever be: EBS (Emergency Broadcast System). This wonderous EBS is what allowed me to flip on the TV last week at 2:36am and immediately see that I had 6 minutes to run. EBS worked so well that I didn’t even realize I had used it until just now…

Not only that, but in the case of radiation or a biologic, I have a feeling Homeland Security just might be able to put up a quick info page that I’d trust far more than any commercial site…

[kossori hana.] (user link) says:

my two cents

I was in Lafayette during Katrina. We weren’t going to be affected much, so I stayed up playing Galaxies with my boyfriend. I did alt+tab over to the local news sites and they had regular updates and good information.

in our area, we can contact the newsroom free on cell phones to report breaking events like a fire or a wreck. their websites reflect this information. isn’t that what they’re talking about?

during chaotic events, it’s difficult to find order and get organized. plans fall through. it usually comes together with time. people are identified asap. i don’t think it’s feasable to do such a thing immediately.

[kossori hana.]

Brian (profile) says:

In case my original point wasn’t clear, the first sentence of the story is ridiculous:

“Whenever there are disasters, such as earthquakes or hurricanes, many people quickly go online “

-it should read:

“Whenever there are disasters, such as earthquakes or hurricanes, many people WHO AREN’T EFFECTED BY THE DISASTER BUT WISH TO BE ENTERTAINED BY IT quickly go online “

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