Tracey Koehlmoos: Disaster preparedness and resiliency

Tracey KoehlmoosThis week I have had the pleasure of attending a workshop in Honolulu with the centre for excellence for disaster management and humanitarian assistance (CoE-DMHA). The CoE is interested in thinking about resiliency and support for relief and rebuilding from a multi-lateral perspective. With its partners from the Oak Ridge and Argonne National Laboratories, the CoE is polishing up its efforts to develop a system by which all players in a disaster can share and receive information.

The workshop was about a web based computer programme called the resiliency analysis and coordination system (TRACS), which is designed to gather, sort, analyse, and display information in support of decision making during a crisis. The idea behind TRACS is to bring together pre-event information with the insights of those already working and living in a disaster stricken area with the best available global information, so that first responders can realistically plan and direct their efforts.

Discussion centered around how to make the programme more user friendly and how to engage the variety of stakeholders involved in a crisis. Is it lofty to envision a network of individuals, NGOs, international organisations like the ICRC, the United Nations, and international aid and military organisations, working together through technology to coordinate the alleviation of suffering? Perhaps so, but imagine if even the small NGOs were able to communicate with the national response centres and in-coming, well-equipped relief efforts to say, “this bridge is out and we cannot get food and medical supplies” or “this group of people have been impacted by a landslide” or even “this island has no clean drinking water.” The response could be targeted immediately.

TRACS attempts to encompass information on the health system (hence my involvement), education system, transportation, water, and sanitation among others to paint a picture of what exists and what is needed both in terms of geographic layout and in terms of availability. For national disaster preparedness cells, there is great scope to capture existing information and identify gaps to be addressed prior to disasters. I see the potential for great synergy here where governments and non-state sector actors contribute together to build a tool to strengthen resiliency.

Perhaps I am more sensitive to these issues because I have lived with that back burner fear of waiting for the “Big One” in Quetta and Kathmandu, where our home earthquake kits were something we inventoried and frequently discussed. In Dhaka, my family lived through Cyclone Sidr and rather intimately through the coordination of the massive relief and rebuilding efforts in the south of Bangladesh during Operation Sea Angel II. Further, as an American, I remember watching in horror the disaster that unfolded in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Last, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan will be on the hearts and minds of all readers of the BMJ—especially those like me who live in Asia. What is clear is that no person, community or nation is immune from natural disasters so that the need to prepare for events and coordinate after them is universal.

As we approach the holidays and the year draws to a close, and perhaps because of the tragic event within my family and my attendance in October of the BMJ sponsored event on “the health and security perspectives of climate change,” I have been thinking and reading a great deal and rather broadly about resiliency. What does it take to create resilient individuals, families, communities, and nations? Surely, there is a correlation between these levels. I came away from this week with the understanding that TRACS has the potential to empower individuals to contribute to strengthening disaster preparedness at a national level.

Tracey Koehlmoos is programme head for health and family planning systems at ICDDR,B and adjunct professor at the James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University, Dhaka, Bangladesh.