We have seen natural calamities of unprecedented scale across the country over the last few days. These disasters have thrown even the best of administrations out of gear. Most of us looked helplessly at multiple messages that were being circulated on social media about people being stranded, help being unavailable, and life as we know it, vanishing in front of our eyes.
The significance of timely help
During a natural calamity, there is often a lot of chaos and fear, and any form of help available is looked at as the light at the end of a tunnel. Technology can play a very important role in ensuring that this chaos doesn’t debilitate the rescue operations by fear mongering.
Let’s take the case of Kerala floods. Most of the messages that were being circulated in social media were from people who needed timely and urgent help- rescue, food, medicines, etc. The entire country came together to help their fellow beings who needed their assistance. Workforce was available in plenty. What was largely missing was a coordinated effort to direct them to the right places.
From our experience, these are a few things that work very well when dealing with a natural calamity on the brink of a communication breakdown:
1. Set up a reliable communication line - One of the most common complaints we received from people on the ground, was that the rescue numbers that were being circulated in the media were either constantly busy, or they were simply not working anymore. These were the local numbers. People were fast losing access to electricity, and the internet. We quickly set up a rescue helpline using a virtual number. The advantage of using a cloud telephony powered phone number for rescue operations is that it can’t go down even if there is an infrastructure breakdown locally. Since these are virtual numbers, they can handle multiple parallel calls and the chances of a phone number being busy or unavailable are far lesser. So, the first challenge of having a reliable line that is always available is overcome. Also, the entire setup process took less than 30 mins, thereby not wasting any time. In a span of a week or so, we handled over 20,000 calls through our various rescue lines.
2. Keep it simple - Once we had this rescue helpline up, we wanted to make it very simple for the callers and the volunteers who were handling the calls. There was a simple IVR asking those in need of help to leave a quick voicemail with clear instructions about their whereabouts and the help they needed. Since this was handled using cloud telephony, their phone number and the voicemail message was automatically recorded and available for review. It is best to avoid complicated call flows or expect people to think too much during such testing times. Make it as simple as possible for them to reach out for help.
—We even worked with a few groups of volunteers outside Kerala to set up a simple call center where people who spoke Malayalam answered calls from those who were in need of rescue and coordinate with the local teams to make it happen.
3. Work with the local authorities - To ensure that these messages asking for help reached the right folks, we worked with the local authorities to ensure that nothing was lost in translation. A group of volunteers listened to every voicemail message that came in, coordinated with the police and the local rescue teams and ensured that help reached the right people immediately. Tech tools like Google forms, Whatsapp, etc. worked hand in hand with cloud telephony to ensure that everyone involved knew the status of each request and were able to follow it through to the end.
4. The rescue operations are just the beginning - Once the water recedes and everyone gets back to their routine is when the real rehabilitation process begins. A lot of rebuilding is yet to happen. Normal life is a distant dream. But during this phase, the most pressing problems happen to be the ones related to food and medical help. With an upswing in the number of infections and limited number of medical officers available, a phone call becomes a powerful tool to aid the rehabilitation process. Toll-free numbers can help connect those in need to the doctors remotely, who can still offer timely and helpful medical advice. The government is setting up these help lines in rescue camps to ensure that no one suffers for the want of a doctor. Food and clean drinking water are also essential commodities that need to be arranged. If not, the authorities need to be informed of the same. A simple phone call can help here as well.
5. Think long term - Once the dust settles, it’s time to think about longstanding solutions. Is there something one can do to ensure that is less of a chaos if a situation like this arises in the future? What if you can have a “mark yourself safe” option that works over a phone call? The same phone call can also connect you to help in case you are in a place where rescue is needed. These are the areas where cloud telephony can help, and we are working with a few thought-leaders to implement these as well.
A lot has been said about the importance of building powerful communication systems, especially after a calamity. Something as simple as a phone call can be very impactful when such events that are out of the human control unfold. Because what can be simpler than picking up the phone to ask for help?
—By Shivakumar Ganesan, CEO and co-founder of Exotel...