Helping With Disasters

By Nick Wreden  |  Posted 2009-10-28 Print this article Print

The Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the Salvation Army and the World Wildlife Fund must deal with many of the same technology challenges facing for-profit enterprises, but they don’t have the same resources available to them.

Helping With Disasters

As the BGCA works to prevent security-related problems that can harm children, the Salvation Army’s Southern Territory prepares to help people during hurricanes and other natural disasters. During those challenging times, communications are often difficult—and sometimes impossible. Cell phone towers and telephone lines may be out of commission, complicating the urgent need to summon resources and coordinate relief efforts.

To ensure that relief teams can stay in touch, the Salvation Army, founded in 1865 and now operating in 118 countries, depends on mobile communications units that enable the teams to allocate resources and coordinate activities among volunteers and organizations via e-mail, phones and even video conferencing.

“While the Salvation Army is famous for its thrift stores and Christmastime efforts, we are also heavily involved in disaster relief,” says Rod Parks, information technology director and CIO at the Salvation Army’s USA Southern Territory, which is headquartered in Atlanta. “After Hurricane Katrina, we made a large investment in mobile communications and other technology to improve effectiveness.”

The Salvation Army’s technology investments include four mobile communications units that enable voice, data and other communications. One unit is a mobile truck featuring a 1.2-meter satellite dish, while the other units have .9-meter dishes. These portable 4-by-7-foot units are usually transported in customized, ruggedized trailers, but they can be carried in if access is blocked.

All the self-supporting units include diesel generators, and have computing and communications capabilities. Laptops contain Lotus Notes databases and other applications, while BlackBerrys, satellite links, video conferencing and ham (amateur) radio capabilities ensure reliable contact even in the hardest-hit areas.

The mobile communications units are prepositioned in Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Tampa, Fla.; and Jackson, Miss. Each one serves as the hub of a 10-person incident response team and a two-person technical support team. All the units are ready to roll when a disaster threatens and can stay in place as long as necessary. For example, some units have remained in place for weeks or even months at a time when hurricanes hit.

The Salvation Army will also leverage LifeSize video conferencing capability to facilitate regional meetings and the training of officers, employees and volunteers. “It not only helps us improve disaster coordination, but it also saves us an enormous amount of money through lower travel costs, while ensuring that we meet our ongoing educational and communications requirements,” says Parks. “As a nonprofit, stewardship is a high priority.”

Nick Wreden is a writer and marketing specialist in business and technology.

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