IT's Role during Crisis

Rosa Akhtarkhavari, CIO, City of Orlando
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Rosa Akhtarkhavari, CIO, City of Orlando

The Role of Information Technology in a Crisis

Information technology is pervasive in City of Orlando government, enhancing operational capabilities and allowing the City to fulfill its mission of delivering public services in a knowledgeable, responsive and financially responsible manner. The same is true of our role during and in the wake of the tragic loss of life at the Pulse nightclub on June 12, 2016.

One of our critical focus areas is preparing for emergency response to major planned events and disasters. The emergency response plan takes into consideration, and is responsive to, evolving physical and cyber threats and risks. To plan for such events, we hold table top exercises to discuss possible disaster scenarios. These exercises foster productive discussions between operational units and increase mutual awareness of resources, needs and capabilities. The goal is to achieve a collective understanding of how we may respond effectively to an emergency with clarity about the roles of each emergency response function and how they interact with one another.

  One of our critical focus areas is preparing for emergency response to major planned events and disasters 

The City of Orlando’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was activated from June 12 through June 22, 2016 in response to the Pulse tragedy. The initial response of the IT team included activating the existing emergency information line and contacting IT staff with instructions to report to the EOC or be on standby. Our response to the 2004 hurricanes, a cyber-attack and a civil disobedience table top exercise assisted us in this response, but none prepared us for dealing with the emotional impact and the flood of emotions we were experiencing.

The suddenness of the event was also unlike previous emergencies we had faced. Although the City had responded to active shooter events in the past, these efforts were limited primarily to a police and fire response. This time, however, the sheer scale of the Pulse tragedy went far beyond police and fire rescue. There was on-scene triage, Level 1 trauma center activation, a flood of 9-1-1 calls, international attention, an outpouring of public support and an urgent need to absorb that support.

Shortly after we activated our emergency information call center, logs began to show that demand far exceeded the call center’s capacity. Upon discovering this, we increased the center’s capacity to 46 active/queued calls and made a note of this for future preparations.

The unique nature of the incident also required the support of partners at the local, regional, state and national level. The support model required a quick response from the IT team to provide landline phone services, wired secure connectivity, an increase of our secure Wi-Fi capacity and ensuring technology was available to City staff and supporting agency staff at multiple locations. This support was essential to allow for the collection of information by various private, public and non-governmental agencies, as well as, the victims and their families.

The Police Computer Aided Dispatch system reached the largest number of dispatched units per incident since the implementation of the system almost three decades ago. The IT team, working with the Orlando Police Department, was able to implement a workaround to address the capacity threshold being reached during this most critical time. We assisted the Orlando Police and Fire Department to stand up specialized CAD reports as well as GIS maps required for the investigative and emergency response team. Active cyber security monitoring was also heightened during the immediate response period.

Another unique aspect of the IT support for the Pulse tragedy was the increased need to support the City’s ESF-14 Public Information function and their coordination of social media. There was an enormous increase in volume for digital media storage. Tooling requirements for communication had to be adjusted to account for analytics and collation of data. It was humbling and a great honor to support their efforts as they worked around the clock to ensure that a grieving community—and the world—were updated as information was authorized for public release. The evolving role of social media to engage citizenry in a positive and constructive manner is a reminder that even during tragic circumstances, creation of public value is a government responsibility. It is an opportunity to reinforce public perceptions about the legitimacy and value of government as a public asset. Additionally, the City's direct response to the tragedy and its response to the spontaneous outpouring of support from the community created public value by reinforcing desirable social norms of tolerance and inclusiveness. I believe IT, in its role as an enabling presence, contributed to that value chain.

As we rely more and more on technology to provide municipal services, it is essential to have strong and reliable partnerships that go beyond the transactional. To offer support to the victims and their families, the City established the One Orlando Fund through the City’s non-profit, Strengthen Orlando. This decision was made in the early days of our response and as a result, the IT team was required to develop a fundraising page that would be launched within 24 hours of the request. Recognizing the overwhelming support of the community, we knew we had to provide a platform that would be able to support the high demand and traffic to the website. As a result, we reached out to a technology business partner for support. Microsoft activated a crisis response team of employees who volunteered their time to work with us to deploy the One Orlando Azure environment. The direct role of the One Orlando Fund web presence for post-event acceptance and accounting of monetary donations also reinforces the importance of the collaborative relations between the City’s financial policy team and IT.

Some of the key takeaways from this event include the importance of partnerships, planning and a caring staff. The IT team is critical to an emergency response and must be comprised of members who can address task requests with clarity, timeliness and accountability. Logistically, assignment of a single IT incident commander is crucial. And, in the uncertainty of the moment, faced with conflicting reports, flexibility is key to providing immediate response to the needs of your colleagues and the community.

Throughout our response, our top priority has always been to support the victims, their families and all of those directly affected by this tragedy in a dignified manner without jeopardizing the active investigative process. Partnerships, trust and a good grasp of compliance and State of Florida mandates for handling public records allowed us to provide timely support and services with professionalism.

Finally, I encourage you to expect the unexpected. One of the last things I expected to do was to call our cloud email vendor at 2300 hours to unlock the City’s press secretary’s email address due to being (incorrectly) identified as a spammer as a result of the volume of emails sent during a very short time frame.

In the face of tragedy, the actions of our police officers, firefighters, civilian staff and community have been nothing short of extraordinary. Orlando has stood up and stood together to show the world the best that humanity has to offer. We are Orlando United.

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