When Disaster Management Meets E-Business: It's Business as Usual

The e-commerce explosion has a tremendous upside for companies of every shape and size: Goldman Sachs, for instance, predicts e-commerce revenues will reach $5 to $7 trillion in five years. Much of the promise comes from increased supply-chain efficiencies due to universal Internet connectivity, outsourced and virtual business functions, and just-in-time manufacturing and delivery systems.

There is also a downside: The cost of disruptions caused by disasters and emergencies, either natural or man-made. In an e-business environment, disruptions can wipe out the cost savings from increased efficiencies because you’ve bet the enterprise on a matrix of connections to customers, trading partners and service providers. When you outsource critical functions to outside service providers, you’re out of business if their systems are down or unavailable.

What businesses, public agencies and individuals need are tools to manage disasters or emergencies and quickly bring their enterprises and the community itself back to normal. That capability is provided by ETeam, a common, Lotus Domino, Web-based digital operating environment for cross-platform information sharing, distributed workflow and resource management before, during and after a disaster. Incorporating user-annotated, dynamic, geo-reference mapping, ETeam offers disaster management personnel a complete, digital command and control capability to collaboratively prepare for, respond to and recover from disruptions.

The genesis of eteam.com stems from a project for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to test the concept of a wireless, Internet-based battle command and control system. The ETeam Product was developed during an unique public/private partnership with the City of Los Angeles, following the North Ridge earthquake in 1994. After assessing the quake’s impact, we found that the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and the fire department used entirely different radio frequencies, the police department could not receive maps from the fire department, the fire department wasn’t online with the Department of Transportation, the public works department wasn’t connected to the fire department, and so on. Everyone was operating under the constraints of point-to-point, and largely analog communications, such as telephone, fax and face-to-face, which tend to break down when an event involves more than a few entities. From this need, ETeam was born.

Having decided to bring its military Internet command and control expertise to bear on a commercial solution, eteam.com’s first decision was whether to "make" or buy the technology necessary to supply the solution. After accessing cost and technical challenges, we decided to use Lotus Domino and have been satisfied with Domino ever since. Domino, a Web application server, provides us with a platform that contains most of what we need, such as built-in workflow, easy integration with legacy databases and thin-client support. The inherent flexibility of Domino also allowed us to incorporate GIS capabilities into our application, which permitted us to fully integrate user-annotated, geo-referenced mapping with the workflow management system.

What new capabilities does ETeam offer to disaster management personnel?

• For a current view of the disaster, everyone must have the ability to post information to the Web and receive live updates. ETeam handles this with a "White Board in the Sky" feature, which uses Domino replication to update all connected users every time they access any part of the operational databases.

• Distributed workflow management is essential to efficient disaster management. ETeam provides situational awareness, whether it is an industrial accident, the traffic snarl-up from a major sporting event, or a hurricane or an earthquake. ETeam also handles the workflow for managing outside resources, such as the fire department, HAZMAT cleanup crew or relocation company. It enables staff to request, source, track and release resources during the crisis, and ultimately obtain reimbursement from an insurance company or government agency in the recovery phase.

• Public information officers are often in the dark during a crisis or disaster, so ETeam provides the current status, facilitates workflow for report and press release approval and prepares reports for posting on the public Web site.

• Access to legacy databases, such as contingency and business continuity plans, is important, since these are often forgotten or too cumbersome to use in the heat of a disaster. ETeam allows managers to quickly bring such plans online, turning a static planning system into a dynamic operational tool.

• Training for disaster management is notoriously inadequate. Since ETeam resides on users’ PCs, it is ideal for simulating earthquakes or plant explosions any day of the week, letting users practice with the actual tools and interfaces they’ll use in the real event.

Such capabilities would not mean much if the solution weren’t easy to implement and use. ETeam is available for private hosting on the customer’s server, a simple process of loading and issuing user names and passwords; or via the ASP model, where the company can typically get customers online within 48 hours. Another key benefit is ease of use: Based on the familiar Web browser interface, ETeam requires no formal training, and the native tools in Domino are accessible and easy to use. Most users are up and running in less than 30 minutes.

ETeam was designed to embrace every element of society, as our first customers demonstrate. They include federal, state and local agencies, as well as several corporations. Though we initially targeted the public sector, we now feel the business sector is the greater market, because our interconnected and interdependent world creates greater exposure when disruptions occur.

For IT executives, that is a key implication of today’s extended, virtual enterprises. Being in business requires more than just having computers up and running: A high percentage of critical business functions are being outsourced and operations are interconnected with trading partners and service providers all along the supply chain. Internal business continuity plans, hot site linkages and replicated data centers are only part of the solution. Equally important is having the tools to prepare for, respond to and recover from disruptions to the broader, extended enterprise. As Ellis Stanley, Director of the Emergency Operations Office of the City of Los Angeles, stated, "Disaster recovery should be business as usual."

About the Author: Matt Walton is President and CEO of eteam.com (Canogo Park, Calif.).