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11/23/2004
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Disaster-Response Network Planned For American Indian Lands

The introduction of information technology will speed aid in the event of disasters such as forest fires, mudslides, and chemical spills.

For the past six years, the Global Disaster Information Network has operated the old-fashioned way, as a worldwide system of first responders, emergency managers, and local government using whatever means at its disposal to protect communities not well-served by technology from natural and man-made disasters. Beginning next year, GDIN will leverage information technology by establishing the first two nodes of its digital network on American Indian lands in the American Southwest.

One of these nodes will be placed at the Navajo Nation capital in Window Rock, Ariz., while the other will be located on Pueblo lands in New Mexico. Although the specific technology to be deployed at each node hasn't been determined, each location is likely to include radio, Internet, and satellite technology to solicit aid in the event of a forest fire, mudslide, chemical spill, or similar emergency. The nodes will be staffed by a manager, a data analyst, and a technology specialist, all of American Indian descent.

The American Indian community, in particular the National Congress of American Indians, was very receptive to the idea of introducing information technology to their lands for a good cause, says Larry Roeder, policy adviser on disaster management in the State Department's Bureau of International Organization Affairs. "For them, it was about self-reliance."

"It will take about a year to get the nodes up and running," says David Baxa, president and CEO of Vista Technology Services Inc., a company helping GDIN design each node's infrastructure. "We're hoping to start building them within the next six to nine months." This time frame is contingent upon GDIN finding the $5 million to $8 million in funding required to get the pilot started, he adds.

"When the first two nodes are up and running, they will be able to communicate with each other and with the global disaster community," Roeder says. In addition to the nodes, GDIN is also looking to establish a headquarters that will set IT policy and negotiate contracts with satellite communications providers to make sure the node can properly send and receive data.

GDIN is introducing information technology to an area where nearly 40% of the population lives remotely, with very little experience with information technology, and where cell phones are almost nonexistent, Baxa says.

A community of international emergency responders in 1998 formed GDIN as a way to share information to improve their response to disasters as they unfold. Fresh in their minds was a 1997 volcanic eruption in Zaire that required a worldwide collaboration to get critical escape-route information to people living near the volcano. It started when a nearby United Nations office called the U.S. State Department requesting satellite photos of the area around the volcano.

"We had a photograph they could use, but it was the size of a poster," Roeder says. "So I arranged for a satellite to take an infrared photo then convert that photo into a map that could be faxed to a site nearby in Zaire." Roeder calls the overall eight- to 10-hour response time "something of a homerun" when it comes to disaster response.

"The stars aligned themselves in that I knew where there was a satellite that could be used," Roeder says. "But I wondered, what if the stars don't align next time?"

A successful pilot on Navajo and Pueblo lands could give the network a strong push into other underserved areas, such as southern Africa. Says Baxa, "We want to spread these nodes out over different time zones worldwide, so that at any time somewhere in the world a node is active."

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