Using New Technology to Get the Message Out

26 07 2009

Along with others in the Houston Metropolitan Region, the Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management is initiating the use of state-of-the-art technology to manage emergency public information

The PIER System is a crisis communications system that conforms to the Homeland Security Department’s National Incident Management System/Incident Command System standard established in March 2004. The Public Information Emergency Response (PIER) System is a Web-based virtual communications center meant to foster emergency communications regardless of circumstance. Acting as a control center the PIER System speeds internal and external communications by centralizing all functions, including drafting and distributing public information. As such, the PIER System is a quicker, smarter, and more efficient use of technology to provide essential coordinated communication such as:

  • Log-in from anywhere with Internet access.
  • Communicate/collaborate with each other by e-mail and live “conference room” chat.
  • Write, vet, and approve joint news releases and other JIC documents using PIER’s built-in workflow processes.
  • Post JIC documents, photos, and video to JIC and agency websites.
  • Send JIC documents to pre-populated, internal and external stakeholder contact lists via e-mail, fax, or text-to-voice telephone notification.
  • Allow authorized Internal personnel to log-in and view detailed Situation Reports.
  • RSS/XML interoperability with other systems such as RIMS or WebEOC.
  • Allow media, public, and other stakeholders to submit Inquiries by e-mail, phone, or website.
  • Track and manage every Inquiry from submission to response and closure.
  • Provide full documentation and reporting of JIC activities for each Operational Period.

During Hurricane Ike, Fort Bend County deployed four PIER Sites in varying degrees of completion including Judges, Health & Human Services, Office of Emergency Management and Sheriff’s Office. PIER was able to pool together these sites to employ working parts of each site in order to provide quick Hurricane Response. Furthermore, the lack of power for an extended period of time contributed to a number of callers asking for a significant amount of information in a very short period of time soon after regaining power. PIER was able to deliver timely, storm-related information in the midst of Ike to Fort Bend County’s half a million residents. The system received over 600,000 hits and the EOC sent over fifty news releases and advisories.

Likewise, the County’s PIER System proved to be of significant value during the H1N1 Pandemic beginning in April 2009. The County utilized this technology to improve information provided to responders and citizens, receiving 1,000 hits per day from community members. PIER allowed for the creation of an information portal and was updated with case counts daily. The information page was monitored regularly and consisted of continuous updates from Central Disease Control, World Health Organization, and Health & Human Services.

Not only was PIER able to reach out specifically to the community, but also to a controlled and private population. Specifically for H1N1, a password protected section was created for Emergency Managers, Hospital personnel, and Mayors. This password protected site on PIER held County Conference calls and posted that such information. Relevant sections from the Emergency Operations Plan, full copies of Situation Reports, key contacts and phone numbers were all posted in this password protection site to provide vital information to a selective group of people. Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management continues to maintain these specific pages as there is still a demand for information.

Although this project is relatively new in its implementation it has proved to be a successful work in progress. The Office of Emergency Management has been working diligently to make improvements based on lessons learned.  The County hopes to be even better prepared to get critical information out to the public and first  responders during the 2009 Hurricane season and, also, if the H1N1 Flu Event flares back up this fall as it is expected to do.

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