Government Technology

Mobile App Helps Emergency Crews Assess Damage During Disasters

Navarre Beach, Fla./Photo courtesy of Santa Rosa County, Fla.
Navarre Beach, Fla.

August 16, 2010 By

Photo: Navarre Beach in Santa Rosa County, Fla./Photo courtesy of Santa Rosa County, Fla.

With oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster nearing the coast in Florida's Santa Rosa County, emergency management officials had to find a way to track it.

Since April, crews from various agencies have been flocking to the Gulf of Mexico to protect hundreds of miles of wetlands from the massive BP oil spill. But in Santa Rosa County, even after officials deployed a water beacon team, they didn't have the tools to track the flow of oil, said Sheryl Bracewell, the county's emergency management director.

"When we started receiving impacts from the oil, we decided to establish a water beacon team to go out and make sure the oil wasn't reaching any of our sensitive areas," she said. "When they went out, they could say what they saw, but there was a chance it would move by the time someone got there to clean it up."

The emergency management division asked for help to find a better tracking solution and they discovered location-based mobile work force management software from Mountain View, Calif.-based Xora. The Xora app, local officials said, would help emergency teams capture data onsite and speed up response activities as crews worked to stem the oil from drifting into local waterways and estuaries.

With the Xora app, running on Sprint HTC EVO smartphones, the reconnaissance team can take pictures of product they find and fill out a form with details about the spill. The app automatically captures the oil's GPS coordinates. Via the app, they can submit the photo, form and real-time location data to the county, and the emergency operations center can decide how to respond and dispatch appropriate equipment.

"They were able to actually write in some notes and send it back to us in real time," Bracewell said. "We were able to document that [the oil product] is there today and it's been cleaned up tomorrow."

The county pays $15 to $20 per phone per month. (Expenses associated with the oil spill cleanup were reimbursed by BP, county officials said.) At the moment, the county has only two phones online with the software. But that could change in the future, according to officials in the county's GIS Department.

In the case of a disaster that requires similar tracking measures, the county could activate between 25 and 30 phones. If a hurricane were to hit the county, for example, crews could use the app for damage assessments countywide, said Aleta Floyd, the county's IS/GIS director.

Most likely, she added, these expenses would be reimbursed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), depending on the circumstances and intensity of the event. But the county keeps a few phones in storage to activate quickly if necessary.

"Crews could go into the field, especially shorelines and along the watered areas, assess the damage to houses and take pictures," she said. "The tracking and camera combination is such a win-win combination."


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