Despite years of responding to disasters, the members of the Missouri Disaster Medical Team were shocked when they arrived in Joplin, shortly after the deadliest U.S. tornado in at least 60 years had done its worst. Nevertheless, those first
responders acted quickly, decisively, and effectively to save lives, aided by the Microsoft Disaster Response Portal. When every minute could make a difference, they were using the portal within 30 minutes of requesting it, both to gain and share more information
among themselves—such as the locations of emergency resources—and to disseminate more information to the news media and the public more fully and effectively, yet with less time and effort, than they could before. Microsoft provides the portal at no cost;
the Missouri team pays only a modest fee for its hosting on Windows Azure.
At 5:17 P.M., central daylight time, on Sunday, May 22, 2011, the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for Joplin, Missouri.
Seven minutes later, at 5:24 P.M., sirens in Joplin began to blare a warning to its 50,000 residents. The rain and hail, already heavy, was louder. Many never heard the sirens. In any case, 17 minutes later, at 5:41 P.M., there were few if any sirens to
hear. They, along with much, much else, ceased to exist as the deadliest tornado in U.S. history unleashed its 200-miles-per-hour winds on Joplin.
||It’s pretty amazing that our team could start to use the portal 30 minutes after we asked for it.
Team Commander, Missouri Disaster Medical Team
Minutes later and 288 miles away in St. Louis, Missouri, Mark Thorp and his family were having Sunday dinner when a barrage of text messages on his phone began to compete for his attention. Thorp—Team Commander of the Missouri Disaster Medical Team, known as
Missouri-1—did as they directed and turned on his television. Minutes later, he was on the phone with members of other state emergency services and departments.
Thorp’s team, as its name suggests, provides emergency medical services at the sites of disasters and other major public health emergencies. It provides mobile medical facilities when local facilities are overwhelmed by casualties or, as would turn out to
be the case in Joplin, become casualties themselves. The organization includes first responders of every type likely to be needed to supplement or substitute, for local emergency staff, including doctors, nurses, paramedics, logistics personnel, equipment
movers, administrators, telecommunications technicians, and public information officers.
Within two hours of the tornado’s touchdown, one of Thorp’s response teams was on its way to Joplin. All veterans of emergency response situations, many of its members were nonetheless unprepared for what they found there. As is often true of tornadoes,
the damage in Joplin was confined to a specific territory, in this case an area seven miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide. But within that area, it often looked as though Joplin had been lifted off the map, with only debris left behind.
“I’ve been to a lot of disasters and seen a lot of damage,” says Kevin Tweedy, Deputy Commander for Missouri-1, who was among the first to reach Joplin that evening. “But the concentration and level of damage in the area that we were working was probably
the most significant I’ve ever seen. You couldn’t tell where one property ended and the next began—there was just nothing left. There were no lights anywhere. But out of the darkness you could hear the fire alarms still going off in damaged buildings.”
|Figure 1: Joplin’s eight-story, concrete-and-rebar St. John’s Mercy Hospital was
lifted off its foundation by the tornado, rendering it uninhabitable. Cars were
swept aside as though by giant brooms.
Some of Missouri-1’s needs were obvious: power, water, medical supplies. Others were not, such as its need for a communications system that simply didn’t exist at Joplin. “Communications is the first thing that falls apart in every disaster,” says Tim Conley,
Mission Support Team Manager for Missouri-1. “And if we’re working with other responding agencies, their IT systems typically aren’t the same as ours, making coordination very difficult.”
Beyond interagency communications, Missouri-1 had other IT needs. On his nearly five-hour drive to Joplin that Sunday night, Conley realized he knew little about the city—where were its hospitals, its medical supply houses, its fire departments, and where
were they all relative to the path of the tornado? What bridges and roads were impassable? And how could he and his teammates get this information—fast?
Public information was yet another concern. All of the major news organizations wanted constantly updated information. Victims in and around Joplin needed to know where they could go for help. People throughout the country wanted to know if family and friends
there were safe. Missouri-1’s-public information officer assigned to the disaster was managing the team’s response from St. Louis.
In a coincidence that strains credulity, Thorp, Conley, and their colleagues had spent the 11 days leading up to May 22 responding to another major emergency, during which they had tested the very communications solution they now needed. For some, just
several hours had passed between getting home from that experience and getting the call to go to Joplin.
The explanation: Missouri-1 had just finished responding to a massive earthquake, drawing the participation of responders from seven other states. Happily, this disaster had been but a simulation, created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as part
of a regional test of first responders.
|Figure 2: The Disaster Response Portal shows a map of Joplin, overlaid with content
in pop-up windows, pushpins colored by function, route mapping, and more.
While the earthquake had not been real, one of the key tools that Missouri-1 had used to respond to it certainly was. That tool is the Microsoft Disaster Response Portal, a solution designed to give government agencies a single location that fosters information
sharing and collaboration among first responders, and to disseminate public information to individuals and the news media.
The portal was developed as part of the Microsoft Disaster Response program, through which Microsoft works with emergency services agencies—such as Missouri-1—to understand and help address their biggest challenges. The portal is hosted on Windows Azure
in Microsoft data centers, eliminating the need for first responders to run it on local computer servers. That was a good thing for Joplin, since there were few functioning servers left on which to host the portal, and no intact electrical infrastructure with
which to power it.
When Microsoft had approached Missouri-1 about the portal, the company had envisioned it primarily as a means by which the public could get information during an emergency—and it certainly served that purpose in Joplin. But, during the earthquake simulation,
Conley had immediately seen the portal’s potential for information sharing among first responders and emergency services agencies, and proposed this use to Microsoft. The company had readily repurposed the portal’s standard components for Missouri-1’s use.
It was the Disaster Response Portal that came to Conley’s mind as he drove through the night toward Joplin. “At about 12:30 A.M.,” says Conley, “I woke up our contact at Microsoft and said, ‘Okay, we need to use the portal for real—turn it on.”
That contact was Rick Zak, Industry Solutions Manager on the State and Local Government team at Microsoft. He happened to be in Florida, where it was one hour further into the night. Working with colleagues back at his company’s Redmond, Washington, campus,
he had the portal up and running for Missouri-1 in 30 minutes. Bing Maps provided clear, comprehensive maps of the affected area and the location information that Conley wanted was added to those maps using the color-coded virtual pushpins that Missouri-1
team members had suggested to Microsoft just the week before. Now, Conley and the others accessed that information from their phones even before reaching Joplin (see Figure 2).
By 3 A.M. Monday morning, Missouri-1 was in Joplin and treating disaster victims in a pair of hastily raised emergency room tents with 24 beds—the eight-story, concrete-and-rebar St. John’s Mercy Hospital, a building of unfathomable weight, having been lifted
off its foundation by the tornado and rendered uninhabitable. Microsoft, meanwhile, worked through the night to finish converting the test version of the Disaster Response Portal for its new mission in Joplin.
|Figure 3: The Disaster Response Portal, customized for the distribution of public
information on the Joplin disaster, features automatic translation and
The responders used the portal to identify safe driving routes to and around Joplin. They used a Twitter feed integrated with Bing Maps to track team members as they used these routes and provided live updates. (Even Conley’s wife used this feature, to confirm
the safety and whereabouts of her husband in the early hours of the response operation.) The responders used the portal as a one-stop workspace for action plans, site photos, and other documentation. And they used the portal to help achieve the central logistical
challenge of the disaster response: Moving a 60-bed mobile medical unit from across the state, where it had been used in the previous week’s test, to Joplin and deploying it there. Working together with the Missouri National Guard, they loaded scores of massive
shipping containers onto three tractor-trailers to transport the unit to Joplin. The convoy had to be tracked along the way, and logistics coordinated among the several agencies responsible for the unit’s operation: Missouri-1, St. John’s Hospital, the Missouri
National Guard, the American Red Cross, the Mercy System (the hospital network of which St. John’s is a part), and others. Missouri-1 used the Disaster Response Portal to accomplish this.
“Within three days, we had the mobile medical unit transported across the state and fully deployed in a parking lot, and were seeing our first patients,” says Conley. “That’s never been done before on U.S. soil as far as I know.”
With the internal portal established for the responders, Missouri-1 and Microsoft launched a second instance of the portal, with its own web address, to get disaster information out to the public (see Figure 3). Rebecca Dougherty, Public Information Officer
for Missouri-1, used the same portal features and external connections that the internal portal used, this time to provide updates on the medical care that Missouri-1 was providing, progress reports on the construction of the mobile medical unit, photos and
video for news organizations, links to search for missing family members, links to media coverage, instructions for would-be volunteers, and more. In addition, Dougherty took advantage of the portal’s flexibility to add capabilities—such as integration with
Facebook and an instant translator of any portal content into any of 26 languages.
At 7 A.M. on Sunday, May 29, less than a week after the tornado struck, the Missouri-1 team transferred the mobile medical unit to the Mercy System and it became the new St. John’s Mercy Hospital (see Figure 4). It would continue to be Joplin’s primary hospital
until a new facility could be opened seven months later.
Most team members returned home, some stayed to help support the hospital. Rick Zak, who had flown to Joplin the previous Thursday to help manage a range of technology issues for the responders, returned home as well. Microsoft personnel from St. Louis and
Kansas City made repeated visits to Joplin over the following weeks and months, to help spur continued progress. Less than a year later, Joplin is healing, slowly, but healing nonetheless.
Looking back on the Joplin experience, Missouri-1 team members cite a variety of ways in which the Disaster Response Portal aided them in their jobs, so that they could do those jobs—that is, saving lives—that much better.
Set Up in 30 Minutes
When disaster struck in Joplin, there was no time to design and build a web portal for responder collaboration. Basic capability was needed immediately; full capability was needed soon.
“It’s pretty amazing that our team could start to use the portal 30 minutes after we asked for it,” says Thorp.
|Figure 4: The old and new St. John’s Mercy Hospitals in Joplin.
To make that possible, Microsoft had built templates into the portal for key functions that would be needed in almost any disaster or health emergency, such as the tracking of assets and personnel. When the portal was activated for Missouri-1, just about all
that was needed was to add the specifics for Joplin’s emergency. Getting the map of Joplin from Bing Maps onto the Portal, for example, was a relatively simple matter of entering longitude and latitude information, and responding to the blank fields in the
type of plain-English drop-down box with which virtually all computer users are familiar. Custom text was added through a plain-English editing tool that showed users exactly how the website would look every step of the way.
The Missouri-1 team members didn’t know anything about programming; they didn’t need to. Nor did they need to know much of anything else about the technology. For example, they didn’t need to maintain any computers—or even have any computers. All that was
taken care of for them by Windows Azure in the cloud environment—although the responders didn’t need to know anything about that, either.
“I didn’t know that the ‘cloud’ existed until Microsoft told me,” admits Conley. “I’m not a subject matter expert on how this all works.” And that, Microsoft would say, is the point.
Easily Customized to Meet Specific, Changing Needs
One certainty in a major disaster is that little is certain. The type of support that the Missouri-1 team needed within the first 8 hours of their arrival in Joplin changed considerably within the following 16, which made the portal’s flexibility a
For example, the flexibility to repurpose the entire portal from an internal collaboration tool to an external, public information tool saved the time and effort to work with two different, possibly incompatible systems. The flexibility to add or remove
capabilities and external connections also made the team’s tasks easier, by putting the right tools right where they were needed.
Missouri-1 relied on Twitter integration when that social network was what it needed for team communication, for example, eliminating the need to recreate and maintain its own network. When the team needed a tool for the external site that would make it
easier for citizens to post and share their own photos, video, and blogs, it added Facebook integration.
Other social media could be added just as easily. For example, Missouri-1 wanted Photobucket integrated into the portal; and, without much effort, that’s what it got.
Accelerated, Expanded Dissemination of Information
Because the portal sped the sharing of information, it also sped the activities that depended on that information. The biggest example of that is the transport and deployment of the mobile medical unit. With the portal as a type of virtual conference
room, the individuals and organizations with interests in the unit made key decisions—such as where to deploy the unit and what resources to use for that deployment—more quickly and reliably.
“We coordinated so much of the effort because we had the technology to do so,” says Dougherty. “The hospital had lost their technology when the tornado struck. Law enforcement relied on radios. We had the portal.”
Similarly, Dougherty was accustomed to a time-consuming, inefficient process for distributing information. “Before the Microsoft portal, I had to communicate directly, either via email or phone, with media outlets and resources within the state,” she says.
“This time, I used the Microsoft portal to disseminate information from one place. We provided more information, and more valuable information, than we could before, such as links for missing persons and donation drop-off locations. We arranged interviews
and walk-throughs for onsite media reporters and producers—there’s no way we could have done that by phone or email any more; that’s outdated technology to the media. We definitely got the information out faster, and the media could pick it up and use it faster.”
By using the portal, Dougherty doubled the frequency of the updates she disseminated to the media—and did so in less time than she would have spent using phone, fax, and email. She used the freed time, in part, to work with her counterparts at St. John’s
Dougherty saw the portal helping in other ways, too. “Without any effort on our part, all of our site content was instantly available in 26 languages; any non-native English speaker could access it easily—including the Twitter feeds, news feeds, and other
external content,” she says. “We have a large Chinese population around Joplin, and a huge Hispanic population. I don’t speak those languages—but I made sure that the media serving them knew where they could get the information they needed.”
Minimized Technology Investment
Microsoft provides the portal software to state and local emergency services agencies at no cost, and there are no computers or other hardware that those agencies need to purchase. Missouri-1, like other agencies adopting the Disaster Response Portal,
pays only for its use of the Windows Azure environment—and then, it only pays for what it uses and only when it uses it.
“Agencies have found that their nonemergency use of the portal, for updating content and interacting with citizens, costs about [US]$100 per month,” says Zak. “During peak demand for other portals of this size delivered through Windows Azure, we’ve seen
costs go up to roughly $2,000 per month.”
“The Microsoft Disaster Response Portal is really the new way to communicate, a much more efficient way to get information out to the public, and to get information out to the media,” says Dougherty.
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