American Red Cross

When it needed a state-of-the-art video-based information management system for emergency communication and training, San Diego/Imperial Counties Chapter of the American Red Cross chose NEC’s 55” P551 displays, PX750U projectors and MultiSync EA241WM desktop monitors.

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American Red Cross
Quick Facts
  • Facility: San Diego/Imperial Counties Chapter (SDICC) of the American Red Cross
  • Vertical: Corporate
  • Location: San Diego, California
  • Challenges: Create a state-of-the-art, video-based information management system to facilitate information flow through the nearly 40 American Red Cross (ARC) activities and its emergency partners that occur during a relief operation. Secondly, provide real simulation exercise training capabilities to increase personnel proficiency.
  • Solution: 55” NEC P551, 24” MultiSync® EA241WM, PX750U projector
  • Result: Operational improvement and increased motivation for volunteers

The population of Southern California is a frequent victim to what are referred to as “no-notice incident threats.” These include natural disasters such as earthquakes and wildfires that can have a devastating impact on a wide geographic area.

The San Diego/Imperial Counties Chapter (SDICC) of the American Red Cross is tasked with assisting the 3.5 million people in the San Diego/Imperial counties region and the approximately 20 million people in southern California when natural disasters strike. In addition to preparing and opening emergency shelter locations, the SDICC may also be called on to quickly distribute food and clothing to affected individuals. At the same time, it has to serve as an information center, communicating status updates to the media and local residents, while keeping its staff and volunteers up-to-date so that they can do their jobs effectively.

There is no downtime for SDICC officials. If there isn’t a local disaster to deal with, they may be called upon to help victims of events in other regions of the country, as they did following Hurricane Irene. They also respond to smaller events, such as single-family fires, and search and rescue missions. When there isn’t a catastrophe to deal with, the SDICC is still active, serving as a training center for volunteers in the region.

The Challenge

In 2007, the San Diego wildfires ripped through the region, causing millions of dollars in damage. SDICC was there to help, but due to its outdated information management and communications systems, its support efforts suffered.

Information was collected and disseminated using whiteboards, sticky notes and paper memo pads, while communications were primarily handled via face-to-face meetings, email and phone. This time-consuming structure had a negative impact on the delivery of relief services and the effectiveness of its response to those impacted by the fires. In fact, the SDICC’s own disaster operations center was not fully staffed until four hours after evacuation notices began.

“Think of it as a system of binders that included lists of resources and personnel,” said Dr. Richard Hinrichs, managing director of disaster services at the SDICC. “We would have to go to one binder to check out where an event occurred, then we would go to a separate binder to cross reference that with the resources that were available (local shelters, available food, etc.). The whole process was very time consuming.”

While the SDICC had to find a way to address its own limitations, the chapter also was facing new requirements that mandated a change in its operational structure. The new Emergency Alert Systems, like reverse 911, can immediately notify thousands of people to evacuate in a few minutes, much faster than the Red Cross could activate and identify the shelters needed to receive them.

American Red Cross National Headquarters (ARC-NHQ) had entered into a new Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). That agreement and new ARC headquarters operations mandate Disaster Response Operations Service Delivery Plan requirements that set capability standards for regional chapters.

Within four hours of a disaster, the local chapter of the Red Cross must start shelter and feeding operations, staff government emergency operations centers, conduct area-wide damage assessment and initiate public affairs messaging and fundraising efforts. They also have to collaborate with first responders at the federal, state, county and city levels, along with other government entities.

“To better prepare Southern California and the disaster operations center, we had to improve communications and information data systems,” said Hinrichs. “Fortunately, with grants from volunteers and the public, we were able to put together a great solution.”

Hinrichs says that the planning process started in 2009. Core to meeting the challenges facing the SDICC was having an operational capability that could assess the disaster, develop service delivery plans, execute the plans, track performance and adapt the plans with partner collaboration. This meant having a physical coordination center where training, exercises and disaster management personnel could work together in a multi-agency collaborative environment.

To start, the SDICC internally developed what it calls SitCell, or Situational Awareness/Information Analysis Cell software. The technology uses a combination of cloud computing and industry standard geographical information system mapping technologies to track areas impacted by disaster and the resources they have available. These data can then be displayed using a Common Operating Picture (COP). Along with the COP, items such as alerts, plans, calendars, request forms, reference documents, logs, operational statistics and emails are also maintained within the SitCell.

“It’s like Google Earth and Google Maps,” said Hinrichs. Click on a map resource icon and the system has all that information available. We know where all our resources are; we know what shelters are available and how many people those shelters will support. What you have to do during an emergency is assess what you have closest to the threat, and this system shows us what’s available, what capacity there is and who I can contact to prepare, based on their proximity to the shelters.”

Now that they had all of this information readily available, SDICC needed a way to share it graphically with everyone involved in its support efforts – in and outside of the disaster operations center.

“People understand pictures,” said Hinrichs. “We can take data and plug it into a geographical information system, so that we know what damages look like, then we add in information about where to evacuate; what to do to protect your family and then that information is put on message boards. One of our functions at SDICC is to provide that messaging.”

A local integration firm, San Diego-based Fluid Sound, helped solve its visual dilemma.

The Solution

Dennis Pappenfus, general partner at Fluid Sound, was tasked with meeting a set of unique operational requirements by the SDICC.

“As the SDICC is always on call, it was imperative that the video system we installed could operate in a 24x7 environment if needed,” said Pappenfus. “With the SitCell system in place, the solution also had to facilitate the transfer of information in real-time, so that it could be viewed by individual staff, be presented to groups to simplify collaboration and could be easily shared with media and the public.”

Pappenfus said that NEC Display Solutions was the one manufacturer that could offer these capabilities at the performance level that was required and the price point it needed to meet.

Fluid Sound installed 18 24” NEC MultiSync EA241WM monitors so that information could be easily shared among staff and volunteers. In addition to the high-definition capabilities of the monitors, Hinrichs said that the displays are a cost-effective solution for the Chapter. While the SDICC is a 24-hour operation, the monitors are not always in use. NEC’s ECO Mode™ allows users to lower power consumption and the amount of wasted heat released into the environment.

Three NEC PX750U professional installation projectors were installed into SDICC’s central operations hub. They serve as the main information source, projecting critical news that is viewable to all staff. It is here that content generated by SitCell is analyzed by Hinrichs and his team in order to make relevant decisions on how to deploy Red Cross resources and services for any given disaster. Pappenfus said that the dual lamps used in the PX750U and the inherent reliability of the projectors made the model a perfect choice to accommodate the continuous operations at the SDICC.

In its disaster operations center, three 55” NEC P551 professional-grade displays serve as a secondary monitoring system, where staff can display news and other information that the Red Cross needs to know in order to deal with a disaster – including local news broadcasts. Content presented on these displays deemed important for the entire staff can then be simulcast on the PX750U projectors.

“The installation was completed to help facilitate information flow through the 39 activities that occur for a relief function,” said Hinrichs. “All data has to be shared internally and then externally with fire, police, military, government agencies and tribal governments. NEC helps us put up all this information in a common operating picture, so that we can get an overview of what’s happening in the relief area. It gives us a baseline on the community, so if a threat occurs, we know what resources are being impacted and what additional resources are available.”

The inability to quickly assess resource information creates time delays, and can potentially lead to the SDICC failing to meet disaster related service requirements. When this occurs, people impacted by disaster and responders relying on the Red Cross for support could suffer loss of service and see unnecessary humanitarian relief delays.

Hinrichs said that NEC’s display and projection technology has helped to dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes to respond to a crisis. “In the past, it used to take four to six hours to prepare for a larger operation. Following the completion of our renovation project and the NEC installation, prep time is now at less than an hour.”

Once setup is complete, the data sharing capabilities help the Red Cross to quickly communicate updates to its partners and the public. The data also help them to work with the local business community to ease the burden for victims. Hinrichs said that officials can find which stores have remained open during a disaster, and what services and assistance centers are available for the community – so if someone needs daycare in order to return to work (and normalcy), the Red Cross can help.

Aside from the operational improvement, Hinrichs said that the new technology is a huge motivating factor for volunteers.

“They have logistical tracking to see where roads are closed or impacted by the disaster. Information is all readily available and helps to hasten the process of providing relief, which is very gratifying.”

SDICC’s installation of its SitCell software and NEC display/projection technology was completed in February 2012. Thankfully, neither San Diego County nor Imperial County have faced any large major disasters where the Red Cross needed to task its new system, but Hinrichs said officials are confident the area will reap the benefits of its technologically-advanced setup. It is also used daily for the small local disasters (home fires, law enforcement actions, search and rescue support, hazmat spills) that cause temporary evacuations or displacement of people from their homes and training situations.

“We believe the Red Cross humanitarian relief to the community will be dramatically improved with respect to speed and appropriateness of delivery,” said Hinrichs.