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How better tech can help utilities handle information during emergencies

When catastrophic bushfires devastate catchments and communities, how information and response is managed can have a huge impact on recovery.

During the AWA Victorian Bushfire Recovery Hackathon, The Connectors, a team of water professionals focused on helping utilities optimise information sharing during emergency response by devising a new approach to managing information during stressful events.

Team leader Milos Pelikan said timeliness and reliability of information were two critical issues facing utility incident response teams.

“We consulted with Melbourne Water and South East Water. Our mentors were really important because both of them actually worked as emergency response people in their organisations,” he said.

“We started by trying to understand what their frustrations were in terms of responding to emergency events. It was really clear from their answers that it was about being stressed from both an inundation and ambiguity in information leading to stresses in decision-making.

“One of the core problems for both of our mentors was about the timeliness in which they could find the information they needed to respond appropriately. Reliability of information was also a big challenge. These are classic information-management problems”

Less stress, better outcomes

Pelikan said his team’s focus became about thinking of ways of working with technology to help to make information management less stressful for the people involved, because making incident response easier for staff would likely make outcomes more effective.

“Depending on the incident involved, sometimes respondents can be required to read through various forms of the same information to discover what’s new or changed, which can be very stressful when placed under tight decision making time constraints,” he said.

“A crucial element of emergency response is that every bit of intel regarding the incident has a lifespan. If you wait too long to respond to that intel, over time it loses its value because the incident continues to unravel.

“The consequence of not getting access to the right information at the right time is that you miss important progressions. This means that decisions will be made based on outdated information.”

Furthermore, using better information management processes can also help to ensure that the information is more reliable, helping staff work more confidently, Pelikan said.

“Another critical element is the fact that the people responding to the events are human. And responding to emergency events is a very stressful environment, which can lead to inaccuracies and further problems,” he said.

“Respondents often have to make judgement calls when the information they have is inconsistent. Rearranging the way the incident is managed helps create more reliability; it helps to ensure the source of truth doesn’t change.”

Smoother handover

One problematic aspects of incident response management, according to the team's research, was the hand-over of information between shifts.

“Emergencies don’t take a break, which means that there is always going to be a handover during incident response,” Pelikan said. 

“This hand-over process requires respondents to feel confident that the information they are passing onto the next person is reliable and up-to-date and vice-versa.

“We came up with a rhyme: if the incident response is a mess, the recovery will be no less. If you don't have a clear response, you’ve got no hope for ensuring effective recovery. This is why we focused on response information management.”

In terms of how to better manage incident response efforts, Pelikan said his team focused on ways to ensure the information needed was organised and housed in the most effective way possible.

“Part of our solution was starting to think about the process less as indecent management, and more as information management. Our aims were to reduce the stress involved for the respondent, and to ensure the information is reliable,” he said.

“If there’s good information management protocol in place in the response, it's possible to logically and systematically unpack that from a recoverer's perspective.

“The first thing we all agreed on was that managing the incident via email is inappropriate — this appears to be the current paradigm. Responding to an incident and managing the information around it requires both a content management and collaboration platform.”

Pelikan said his team promoted MS Teams as an example of the type of content management platform required to ensure information was reliable and accessible.

“It has content management components built into it, including ways of organising emails, documents, and meeting minutes,” he said.

“It also allows for better collaboration, as different people are able to view and maintain the content without needing time-consuming and stressful hand-overs at the end of each day.

“Furthermore, another important consideration is that, for most people, they're not responding to incidents every day. It's really important that, as far as possible, the tools used in response are as close as possible tools that staff use every day.”

Pelikan said that platforms like MS Teams are used regularly and are designed to be easy to navigate, which helps to remove unnecessary stress when people are working under significant and consequential time constraints.

“People are usually already familiar with how it works, where to look and what you can do. Employing a platform that is easy to use is important,” he said.

“People responding to emergency incidents don’t always have the time to retrain; there can't be that giant learning curve every time.”