When you think about emergency preparedness and response you likely think about the necessities for survival - food, water and shelter. But do you think about the Internet? According to one of the Canadian Red Cross' top emergency responders, the Internet is a vital tool to help survivors and speed up recovery.
"Communication through digital channels is crucial to the work of the Canadian Red Cross," says Ange Sawh, senior recovery advisor with the Canadian Red Cross who is currently responding to wildfires in B.C. "Red Cross teams work around the clock to process online registrations of evacuees, distribute electronic funds transfers, update redcross.ca and respond to thousands of enquiries on our social media channels. With the frequency and scale of disasters in Canada increasing, our response system has shifted to handle a higher amount of affected people. Our data systems must be able to handle the bandwidth of registrations coming in."
If a disaster causes damage to Internet hardware in a community, what's the solution?
Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) can play a key role in keeping this life-line – the Internet – up and running. If city services, ISPs, and content providers such as emergency responders and those that provide ways for people to connect (i.e. Facebook) plug into an IXP, people can still access the information they need even if the Internet is affected by a disaster.
Sawh notes that disaster response efforts are becoming more reliant on technical services to reach evacuees and the need for data speed within the system is of primary concern. An IXP can ensure speed and bandwidth are available because those who are peering at an IXP can communicate with and send data directly to one another. "If the Internet goes down an IXP allows us to sustain a digital approach. In essence, the impacted population should not be without emergency assistance because the Internet isn't working."
Without the Internet following a disaster or if the system is overloaded, organizations like the Canadian Red Cross must ramp up their physical presence and mobilize many more people. This includes setting up more face-to-face registration centres, bringing people in to handle thousands instead of hundreds of phone calls for help and they must set up physical security measures to prevent fraud and protect evacuees. It can also mean the difference between someone receiving financial assistance right away versus waiting several days or even weeks.
And let's not forget the value the Internet brings for survivors' psychological well-being.
"In the age of social media, people spend a lot of time on the web talking, sharing and looking for updates," says Sawh. "They seek out information about emergency support and go online to locate and communicate with family members. If the Internet goes down this increases trauma and stress on families."
Digital responses to emergencies does not replace the need for a physical response, but it is an important part of supporting Canadians following a disaster, particularly as the scale and frequency of emergencies increase.
With that in mind, IXPs should be part of every municipality's emergency preparedness plan. Everyone involved in a response should learn more about IXPs and peer in one of the 11 IXPs across Canada. And from my perspective, Canada can always use more IXPs. The more we have the more resilient Canada's Internet is to disaster, whether natural or otherwise.