RENCI, SmileTiger work to improve disaster communications

Doug Hoell, director of North Carolina’s Emergency Management Association (EMA), was able to reach a larger audience than usual on April 30, when he delivered his annual overview of emergency management in North Carolina.

Many of the audience members, including members of the governor’s cabinet, department heads within state government, and leaders of the North Carolina National Guard, listened from their desktop and laptop computers. Hoell delivered his address from the State Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh and the talk was broadcast to more than 30 receiving sites using a collaboration tool called SmileTiger.

As part of its disaster research efforts, RENCI is implementing SmileTiger, a product of Charlotte-based SmileTiger Software Corporation, as a collaboration and communication tool among employees of the state EMA and other county and state emergency management officials.

“During disasters, the main problem is communication and in everyday situations, meetings among emergency managers require a lot of time and travel,” said Ken Galluppi, who leads RENCI’s disaster research efforts. “Implementing SmileTiger within the EMA lets these managers not only talk to each other, but also share data and visuals, including maps and models.”

In the case of a real emergency, the software would allow emergency managers across the state to collaborate at a time when phone lines are likely to be down and travel might be dangerous, he added.

On April 30, Hoell put the software to use for the first time by delivering his “state of emergency management” address via SmileTiger. The address focused on the state’s preparedness for the upcoming hurricane season. In past years, this address has been made available to members of the statewide emergency management and response community through a phone bridge, a communications solution that did not allow for showing weather models or sharing datasets.

The SmileTiger software runs off a server at RENCI’s main office in Chapel Hill and is accessible to EMA staff and collaborators through a password protected website. Using the software requires nothing more than an Internet connection, a desktop PC and standard multimedia peripherals.

Over the summer, EMA will continue to test SmileTiger’s usefulness as a general collaboration tool. If a hurricane, flood, or other emergency occurs, they also will have the chance to test the software’s usefulness as an emergency communication and collaboration tool. RENCI will evaluate how much server capacity is needed to support EMA’s remote collaborations and will work to integrate SmileTiger into its custom tools that merge atmospheric and hydrological data models with storm surge models. These tools, designed to help emergency workers as well as planners and researchers, will be enhanced by the remote collaboration capabilities made possible by SmileTiger, according to Galluppi.