One of the things for which Hurricane Sandy is best remembered is how well it was predicted. We knew days in advance that it was coming, and those, like me, who lived in its path, had time to prepare for it. As much as is humanly possible to prepare for a Category 3 storm.
I clearly remember Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012. I went to the Waldbaum’s supermarket near my home in Long Beach, New York, to buy supplies for my wife and three young children. I was leaving for Mexico City the next day to present at a conference there, so I wanted to be sure my family had everything they might possibly need. With a background in law enforcement, emergency response, and as the former Deputy Commissioner of the Office of Administration for the Greater New York City Area, I was keenly aware of the importance of disaster preparedness.
I woke up early on Sunday, Oct. 28, to get ready for my flight. The sky was beautiful and clear. You wouldn’t believe a storm was on the way. I boarded my flight and was soon touching down in Mexico City.
That’s when I got the first call from my wife. She said it was starting to rain really hard and water was rushing down the street. In a matter of seconds, the house started to flood.
And then we lost communication—for five days.
My story is not unlike that of anyone who has personally experienced a disaster, be it natural or man-made. But relief and the road to recovery came to me and my family long before many others because of something I use every day in my job: video conferencing.
The only thing anyone cares about in the first minutes following a crisis is safety. Immediately after, the ability to connect—especially visually, face to face—becomes a top priority. This is true on both a personal and a professional level, as families as well as companies of all sizes begin the process of putting their lives and businesses back together.
By the time I was able to get back to Long Beach, on Friday, Nov. 2, my family was staying with relatives. The cellular towers in the heart of Long Beach were down, but I discovered if I drove up to the main cell tower outside of town, I could get a connection. The first thing I did was launch my Polycom RealPresence Mobile video chat app on my iPhone to call my wife. She immediately answered on her Samsung smart phone, and we saw each other for the first time in nearly a week. It had been a while since a smile came to my face in those painful times, but the ability to see each other was the beginning of our disaster recovery.
Reassured about my family’s comfort and safety, I decided to stay in Long Beach to get our ravaged house back in order and help with the relief programs that were under way. When City Manager Jack Schnirman asked me to help with the recovery effort, I was quick to say yes.
Our conversation soon turned to emergency communications—how the City of Long Beach could use technology for disaster response and to connect families and loved ones who, like me, were separated by time and distance.
The benefits of video conferencing are now widely recognized by world-class emergency services teams. These proven technologies enable personnel to be better prepared, to quickly assess situations and to securely communicate face-to-face in any environment, whether from an offsite command center or in the field, thus helping to ensure rapid and informed decision-making for greater mission success.
In a recent situation similar to Hurricane Sandy, the governor of Fushun, Liaoning Province, China, held an emergency video conference at the province’s Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters after the catastrophic flood there severely affected more than 316,000 people. By using Polycom enterprise video conferencing, emergency management teams were able to analyze real-time flood data, discuss relief methods, and identify immediate mitigation and assistance actions for citizens.
Similarly, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, the Oklahoma Army National Guard went to the area to help and brought a video conferencing package with them. This enabled fast and direct communication between commanders and managers in Oklahoma and personnel in downtown New Orleans.
The information and response these systems made possible was invaluable during a time of chaos. It was possible only because video conferencing had been in place and in use well before the crises occurred.
Video conferencing also helps businesses better handle crisis scenarios. As employees communicate over video, they do more than get work done. They gain assurance that the co-workers who are a major part of their daily lives are safe and well, which is a huge psychological boost to people coping with disasters outside their door. The technology also makes it possible to easily and efficiently work remotely, which has proven to be highly beneficial in the aftermath of many emergencies, such as the SARS epidemic, the earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster in Japan, and the closure of airports due to a variety of reasons.
Today I’m a member of the Long Beach Public Safety Commission, working closely with City Manager Jack Schnirman on the development of an Emergency Management Command and Control center. One of our top priorities is preparedness. As we have all learned, although the technology to better predict natural disasters has unquestionably saved lives, the ability to fully communicate and collaborate once the storm has blown over depends entirely on the systems that are in place—long before the first warning signs.
This is something I already knew in my job at Polycom, but when Hurricane Sandy hit, it was about my home, and my hometown. Now, the importance of having a disaster response plan that includes the ability to connect and communicate over video (both inside and outside a crisis area) is as real and immediate to me as the wreckage that once surrounded me.