When Disaster Strikes

By  Susan Nunziata — September 02, 2008

Tracking assets is challenging enough during the regular course of business. So, imagine trying to track and efficiently route a fleet of vehicles during a national emergency or natural disaster.

The American Red Cross has a fleet of some 311 Emergency Response Vehicles (ERVs) scattered at chapters nationwide. They stand at the ready to be deployed wherever disaster strikes. The vehicles deliver crucial medical supplies, food and other items to disaster sites. The organization also relies on third-party trucking and transportation agencies to help deliver supplies.

The American Red Cross  had been relying on a paper-based reporting system that required local fleet officers to visually confirm the whereabouts of vehicles and fill out paper-based reports. During a time of disaster, it's generally not easy for individuals to travel around a stricken area, so it could take weeks for the fleet officers to track down the vehicles and submit the required paperwork.

Once gathered, the information was relayed to the national office via fax machines, usually operating on generators and satellite communications because power was unavailable at recovery sites.

Needless to say, the process was cumbersome and prone to errors. And for a nonprofit such as the American Red Cross, which is required to account for every dollar it spends, the old process presented an enormous accounting challenge.

In 2005, the organization deployed more than 1,000 Orbit One machine-to-machine (M2M) trackers from Numerex. The devices are attached to vehicles and operate on a secure satellite network, delivering real-time GPS information about the vehicle's location to a web-based database. They require minimal training for the organization's largely volunteer workforce. For supervisors, the accompanying web-based application can be accessed anytime, anywhere.

The deployment has expanded beyond the ERVs, and is being used to track command response vehicles, which are the communications hubs for disaster sites, as well as mobile kitchens and other assets. A total of 465 units are now being tracked.

Linda and David Auck serve as National Fleet Officers for the American Red Cross. They're on the ground at recovery missions and are responsible for keeping track of the ERVs. "When we first arrive on a job, it's chaotic," says Linda Auck. "Assets might go to a location that we can't [reach] to eyeball them and confirm that they were on the job. We've spent up to two weeks looking for vehicles."

At the national office, the biggest process improvement has come in the ability to be accountable in a timely fashion, says Brian Womack, Senior Associate, Transportation Disaster Services. "If I tell my boss we have 43 ERVs on a job, now I can confirm that in two days, rather than two weeks."

It costs $4,000-$5,000 per disaster to put an ERV on a job. "We know from the very beginning how much a particular disaster will cost us," says Womack. "Being a non-profit and depending solely on the generosity of people, we have to be transparent and justify to a "T" where the money is going."

Womack is eager to explore additional wireless solutions for his operation, but tight budgets prevent any large investments. He's seeking companies in the mobile sector willing to donate goods and services to help him further streamline processes and improve on the life-saving services provided by the American Red Cross. If you'd like to contact Womack, email susann@mobileenterprisemag.com with the words RED CROSS in the subject line.



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