Planning for Emergencies During COVID-19

05-03-2020 04:29 PM
Esri Contributor
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I live in an area of the US likely to experience severe weather in the springtime.  Most residents here have a plan of action in the event a tornado warning is issued for their area.  We charge our devices and power banks, keep important documents in a waterproof container, and put fresh batteries in our flashlights.  Many rely on public storm shelters or have a family member, friend, or neighbor nice enough to make room for us in their shelter.  But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed what was once considered acceptable.  Storm shelters were not built to allow occupants to stay six feet apart.  The pandemic is forcing everyone to re-evaluate their plans and consider risks in a way we didn’t have to think about in previous storm seasons.

How do you plan for an emergency when you’re in the midst of a totally different emergency?

Telecom companies are in the same predicament, but the stakes have never been higher.   Communication services are more important than ever, with vast numbers of people working and learning from home.  It’s also clear that severe weather events won’t stop simply because we are busy dealing with a pandemic.  Whether you are preparing for tornados, hurricanes, floods, or wildfires, COVID-19 is changing the landscape.  What was once considered reasonable may not necessarily be the best plan to keep customers, employees, or contractors safe anymore. 

What’s important is that your business is weighing those risks and making a plan for what you’ll do to prepare before an event, how you’ll respond during the event, and how you’ll safely restore the network and customers after the event.  Yogi Berra may have said it best: “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”  Fortunately for us, as GIS professionals, we know that GIS is one of the best tools we have at our disposal to design and carry out these plans.

Dashboards assist with operational awareness before, during, and after emergency situations.

Before a typical storm season, telecom companies organized maps and dashboards to help them best prepare for a storm event.  Perhaps they mapped historical hurricane or tornado tracks and compared them to their own service territories and network locations to identify locations with a higher probability of damage.  At Esri, we’ve worked with HR departments to map employee home locations so that when storm paths became available, they instantly knew how the storm might affect employees and their families.  Telecoms stage equipment and field technicians strategically so that once the event is over, recovery can begin more quickly.

While these ideas are all still valuable, COVID-19 adds levels of complexity.  Telecoms must also now consider the health of their own employees or outside contractors.  Local and state rules will vary from place to place, and they must take that into consideration.  Adding maps of COVID-19 infections and testing centers must be considered.  Entering a customer’s home to restore service is no longer a risk many are willing to take, both for the safety of the customer and the employee.  We’ve heard of telecom companies curating a map of company-owned facilities available for restroom breaks and making that available to their field technicians.

Once the event is over, telecom companies want to assess the damage so they can begin prioritizing work for restoration.  Systems that rely on paper forms or multiple calls between the field technician and dispatch will unnecessarily delay the critical nature of that work.  Also, companies that relied on technicians working in teams or groups will have to re-assess risks.  Some companies are using employee personal vehicles so that staff can maintain social distance while traveling to work locations.  Companies are also staggering work start times so that the number of employees congregating at specific locations can be minimized.   Technologies such as AVL (automatic vehicle location) work wonderfully to keep employees safe when the employee is in the vehicle but aren’t as helpful when staff are outside their trucks or using their own car.  Many telecom organizations are looking to mobile apps (such as Tracker for ArcGIS) to ensure social distancing during work hours is maintained.  It can also be a creative way to reimburse mileage for use of those personal vehicles.

Ensure social distancing is practiced at work locations.

Throughout this blog post, I mentioned many maps and data sources, as well as suggestions on how to use them to make data-driven decisions.  Here are a few links:

What’s your organization’s plan for Emergency Inception (an emergency within an emergency)?  Share your ideas in the comments or reach out to us at if you’d like some help.

About the Author
I am a member of the telecommunications & cable sales team at Esri. We get to work on cool projects with customers ranging from fiber densification to business continuity to marketing. Once we helped someone map where squirrels were chewing through fiber cables and strategically plan where to put special equipment to prevent squirrel damage. No, I am not making this up. I began working at Esri in 2002, originally within the Educational Services group. Aside from being a self-professed map nerd, I also have borderline unhealthy obsessions with dogs and the Oklahoma Sooners.