Making Rescue Volunteers Part of the Official Response

In this Aug. 27, 2017 file photo, residents are helped from a boat after being rescued from their flooded homes from Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston.

In this Aug. 27, 2017 file photo, residents are helped from a boat after being rescued from their flooded homes from Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston. AP Photo


Connecting state and local government leaders

A rescue website developed during Hurricane Harvey—and in use again during Hurricane Florence—wants to work more directly with local governments.

As the waters rose in the early days of Hurricane Harvey, 911 operators just couldn’t keep up with the calls for help.

People desperate for rescue instead turned to Twitter and other social media platforms, sending their pleas out into the ether. “Please send help, my friend’s boyfriend is stuck with two cats and two dogs, water is rising,” read one sent out late one night.

At that moment, Matthew Marchetti and Nate Larson, both software developers, wanted to help people they knew were in need. In about six hours, they built a website to put out the distress signals.

When they went to bed, they had put information about 20 people online, Marchetti remembered. By the time he woke up the next morning, there were 1,500 requests for rescue that needed coordinating. They ended up getting help from local people with boats, as well as outside volunteers, like the Louisiana-based boaters dubbed the “Cajun Navy,” who poured into the area and used the information to guide their efforts.

“It is kinda like Uber for rescues,” Marchetti told Route Fifty. “Connecting people who need help to those who can give the help.”

The website now called CrowdSource Rescue—which later expanded to include an app enabled with GPS tracking used solely by rescuers—has grown into a larger venture. It assisted with about 37,000 rescues during multiple storms in 2017, and again deployed for Hurricane Florence. During the recent flooding in North Carolina, 745 volunteers—70 percent of them the Carolinas—used CrowdSource Rescue to help 1,243 adults, 477 children and 234 elderly people, Marchetti said on Thursday.   

During each of these responses, volunteers and the official response by law enforcement, Coast Guard, National Guard and fire personnel, worked largely without coordination. But now Marchetti and officials with the city of Houston and Harris County are trying to figure out if they can cooperate, with the goal of allowing for better use of both the volunteer and professional response teams.

That’s also the recommendation of a new report from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, which looked at Twitter messages and the Crowdsource Rescue database from Harvey. The report recommends that local governments look for ways to more broadly tap into these social media resources, both during the active response and once they begin to pick up the pieces.

“It helps during the disaster because you are seeing where distress signals are happening,” said Carlos Villegas, a Kinder Institute staff researcher. But Villegas said he also sees utility for the information after storms, as it can be used to augment the initial damage reports compiled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and used as states and local governments seek aid.

Marchetti said he has been in active talks with both Houston and Harris County about improving coordination going forward.  

Houston officials said they, too, want to work with volunteers, knowing that the next disaster could pose very similar problems: overwhelmed 911 and insufficient professionals on the ground ready to deploy.

Jesse Bounds, director of innovation for the city of Houston, said there needs to be better coordination just within all the different government responders. “There were cases where a fire department would go and respond to a call for service and then a police department would show up or another agency like a sheriff’s office would show up to the same address,” he said.

He envisions a system that would both provide better coordination and also be tapped, if necessary, to allow “pre-vetted volunteers” to be deployed as quasi-first responders.

But there are issues that need to be worked through, such as making sure rescuers go through high-water rescue training led by the fire department, Bounds said. The city would also need to vet volunteers to make sure they have a big enough boat to do this kind of work.

“We don’t want folks in their kayaks going and rescuing families and capsizing and killing everybody on board,” he said.

City officials also need to work through standard liability issues, with Bounds noting that bringing rescuers in-house makes them essentially “agents of the city” during a disaster. The city also needs to work through its procurement process, he said.

“The idea is the city could take and own and feel responsibility and therefore manage the risk of a solution like that in a future storm,” said Annie Pope with Mayor Sylvester Turner’s hurricane recovery office. “That is really exciting, but as you can see it is taking a lot more time.”

Marchetti said his work helping run the website again during Florence reiterated the need to work out this kind of cooperation ahead of the disaster, as during an event emergency management officials just don’t have time. Coordinating would also guard against what he called the “secondary disaster” of lots of volunteers converging on a place that doesn’t need that level of help.

And it would ensure that the professionals get the really specialized jobs. “If you have someone on the roof of a house, do we want to dispatch a Coast Guard helicopter or a volunteer?” he said.

Pope and Niel Golightly, a vice president at Shell Oil Company who is on loan to the city of Houston to help with hurricane recovery, said they don’t see a lot of usefulness in mining the rescue data for mapping the disaster to make sure the city can fully access federal money, as suggested in the Kinder Institute report.

Instead, they said Houston and its contractor, Civis Analytics, are tapping a wide array of data—from initial debris removal requests after homes were gutted to “windshield tours” to see the high-water marks outside buildings—to make sure the city properly documented what happened.

“We are in the process of analyzing and catching a much broader look at what really happened than just submitting ourselves to just official FEMA data,” Pope said.

Laura Maggi is Managing Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

NEXT STORY: North Carolina’s Florence Evacuees Urged to Hold Off on Returning