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Online crisis management tools to inform, advise and prepare local communities

The EU-funded POP-ALERT project has developed new tools to inform and assist communities during major natural disasters or emergency incidents.

The project, during its final conference in Brussels on 15 March 2016, presented its practical and flexible strategies to prepare populations to cope with crises or disasters. The researchers focussed their attention on a variety of stakeholders who, due to their geographical, political or economic situation, are likely to face different types of threats, such as landslips, wildfires, floods, earthquakes and manmade disasters (such as technological failure and terrorism). More specifically, they targeted both local populations as well as visitors, such as expats and tourists, tackling key factors including cultural differences and language barriers. This allowed them to create a framework that facilitates the assessment of the population’s capacity to absorb and make use of different Crisis Management strategies and technologies developed at the EU-level. Effective communication for crisis management To develop such a framework, POP-ALERT’s key principle has been that the key to a successful Crisis Management Process is effective communication. When a crisis occurs, the flows of communication between the different actors enable the response to be quick and effective. In current systems, the authorities and first-responders are made aware of a situation through different monitoring technologies, as well as from certain emergency calls from the population. However, the project has also focussed on ensuring a ‘bottom-up’ approach by making the target populations a key lynchpin of the project. The effectiveness of the local and national authorities, as well as emergency services, depends on the preparedness of the population directly impacted by the emergency, but consequently the local population must be provided with the right training and information from local authorities and first-responders. To help better inform local populations on what they should do during an incident, the project has written individual factsheets that citizens are able to print out and keep pre-emptively in their home. These factsheets cover a number of hazards, from natural disasters, extreme weather to terrorism. The project also provides advice on how individuals can practically prepare an emergency supply kit, as well as age-specific games to teach children how they should react during an incident. POP-ALERT Dashboard and Lisbon simulation Arguably the most innovative tool developed by the project is the POP-ALERT Dashboard for Population Preparedness and Alerting. The online Dashboard would be the central mechanism in a unified system of warning citizens of danger and providing them with the most up-to-date and relevant information in the case of a major incident. The idea is that during an emergency situation, the Dashboard would be ‘owned’ by the local authority responsible for coordinating the local response. The Dashboard was put into practice during a simulated emergency that took place in Lisbon in February 2016. In the scenario, which included 130 participants from across the EU, an earthquake strikes the Portuguese capital, causing many of its ancient buildings and monuments to collapse into ruins. Lisbon was chosen as its historic centre is densely packed but also because over 10 million tourists visit the city each year, most of whom do not speak Portuguese. This meant that the simulation had to take into account the need to not only communicate clear advice and instructions to the local population, but also to effectively address the thousands of tourists caught up in such an emergency situation. The Dashboard includes an interactive and regularly updated map of the crisis area and lists the contact information of all local authorities, including police, fire and civil protection. The Dashboard also collects and publishes updates and official advice distributed via social media and has a rolling livefeed of realtime updates. Although the Lisbon simulation was deemed a success, the project’s technical coordinator, Hara Caracostas, did admit during the conference that the main drawback of the POP-ALERT strategy is its almost complete reliance on internet tools, as well as addressing the challenge of being able to quickly and simultaneously translate vital information and official advice into several languages or more if required. Next steps Ms Caracostas emphasised that emergency response programmes were a national competence but that the POP-ALERT team hopes that its tools and materials will be adopted by EU Member States to provide a framework that would help local authorities synchronise their efforts during an incident. From a practical perspective, the project team will provide a series of recommendations to the European Commission in the hope that they will develop the POP-ALERT platform further and make full use of it at a European level. For more information please see: POP-ALERT website

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