How many computers are needed to register for assistance in disaster?

A locked computer.As the American public becomes increasingly reliant on communication and technology devices for daily activities, it is natural assumption that they will also use these devices during disasters. There are numerous examples in disasters where people rely on their cell phones for communication to others both in and out of the disaster area. During disaster, traditional means of communication become overwhelmed through the increase in usage according to the FCC. Even FEMA’s phone registration is overwhelmed during large disasters and FEMA encourages disaster victims to register online. Given the increase in demand to register people online and that technology corporations wanted to be involved, the DHS Office of Policy hosted conference call on September 16, 2008 to explore setting up “cyber pods” on Galveston Island following Hurricane Ike. This article explores just how many computers are needed to get the public registered with FEMA during disaster. 


The usage of web sites during and after disaster is increasing as evidenced by the higher percentage of online registrations with FEMA compared to the phone, the increase in use of personal welfare sites such as the American Red Cross Safe and Well site, and the increasingly widespread use of social networking sites. The number of internet users in the United States has grown from 124 million in 2000 to 220 million in 2008; up 177%. Pew/Internet reports that 77% of adults (175 million people) have at least one computer in the household and 93% of married couples with minor children have at least one computer in the household. Of the adults who use the internet, here is what they do: 

  • 92% send or read email.
  • 89% use search engine to find information.
  • 80% check the weather.
  • 73% get news.
  • 66% visit local, state or federal government website.
  • 58% seeks information or support for medical condition or personal situation.
  • 40% send instant messages
  • 35% send/receive text messages using cell phone.
  • 33% read an online journal or blog.
  • 30% post comment or review about product or service.
  • 29% use an online social networking site (includes MySpace, Facebook or Linkedin)
  • 22% post comments to online news groups, websites or blogs.
  • 19% create internet content.
  • 14% create or work on own webpage.

The internet is not just for entertainment, but it is also for information to assist in decision-making. About 60 million Americans — or 45% of internet users — say the internet helped them make big decision or handle major situation in their life in the previous two years. Three out of four people evacuated from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina went to online discussion forums and about half reported posting messages. This research also suggested that Internet users facing crisis prefer interactive information sources to static sources:

“The internet’s largest impact comes in connecting people to other people for advice or sharing valuable experiences. For about one-third (34%) of those who used the internet in key way in decision, the internet’s capacity to let users draw on social networks was part of the decision-making dynamic. The ‘social network’ effect is still larger for the 28% who said the internet connected them to expert services, at least to the extent that they were able to contact specific individuals for help.”


People are likely to be separated from their computer during disaster situation either through evacuation, power loss, or other events. While some people may still access the internet through mobile devices, there is significant portion of the population that will not have internet access through the peak of the disaster until utility crews can repair the infrastructure so they can return home State emergency managers do not place high value on online social networks when planning to inform the public during disaster. Instead, they place high value on the use more traditional methods to contact the public, such as radio and television. This is interpreted as some state emergency management agencies not finding ways to communicate with the public in ways the public wants to be reached. In the defense of the state emergency managers, there is general assumption that the power will be out in large disasters therefore computers and more modern communication means will not work. This means that people will need to have an alternate source of power, evacuate to location with power or make “day trips” to location with power to use computer technology.

Internet kiosks requirements

The requirements for an internet kiosk are simple on the surface. The user should have access to computer that is connected to the internet that will allow them to — at minimum — register for FEMA assistance and at disaster welfare registry site. It is safe to expect that all available computers will be in concurrent use during the peak of the response with people in the disaster impact area seeking access Pew/Internet reports that 32% of Americans need help from someone else to set up or use new electronic “gadget”. Based on this information, this author would expect that one-third of people coming to use the computer for the first time would need some hands on assistance with the computer. The patience of the users is expected to be low with the stress created by the disaster. The appropriate staffing for the internet kiosk will be vital for success FEMA’s registration website sets the expectation that it will take 20 minutes to register for FEMA assistance. If users are directed to one other website to register their welfare status, they would be expected to take 30 minutes on the computer. Opening up the computers to full internet access so people can also send and receive their email, read the news and weather, and check online social networks may dramatically increase the amount of time that each person will want to be on the computer Once below the surface, the internet kiosk’s requirements start to become more complex. There are needs for physical and virtual security of the laptops; software to restrict the online activities and duration; and plan for the deployment, setup and maintenance of the equipment. Those requirements are outside the scope of this article.

Internet kiosk placement during disasters

There are number of potential locations to place an internet kiosk (computers with internet access) at during disaster. Any site that is visited by people in the disaster zone or evacuees from the disaster zone has the potential to need an internet kiosk. There are two general categories of sites in disaster: those setup before hand that the community will use, and those setup as result of the disaster. In the former category are community centers, shopping centers, libraries, post offices and places of worship. The latter category includes feeding sites, bulk distribution sites, client assistance centers and shelters. The advantage to site that exists before the disaster is that the people in the community will know where these sites are, naturally congregate around them and there may be an existing internet connection that can be used. The advantage to site setup for the disaster is to keep disaster resources centralized around key points to create “one stop” sites.

Some Assumptions

The assumptions for the math I’ll do are as follows:

  • The goal is to have enough computers to register all shelter residents in three-day period with an expectation of 75% uptime on the computer and connection (18 hours per day).
  • minimum of two computers will need to be sent to each shelter for redundancy in the event of breakage or loss.
  • Only one member of household needs to apply for FEMA assistance, register at disaster welfare site, and this will take 30 minutes on the computer.
  • During the first 72-hour period, causal internet browsing will be restricted until all shelter residents have registered.
  • The shelters are open concurrently. Realistically, one shelter may only be open for days to , and another shelter opens on day , which would allow the equipment to transfer between shelters.
  • Shelter populations are evenly distributed across all the shelters. Realistically, shelters have wildly varying capacity.
  • Shelter population will be converted to the number of household using .. Census Bureau state data where the shelter is located. The national average is .36 people per household.

The problem in translating this to reality will be the dynamics of disaster sheltering at the start. shelter may only open for day or two before merging with another shelter. A shelter could be opened but no residents show up, or it could be overwhelmed with residents. local faith–based group may open shelter for 10 to 20 residents where community shelter may have capacity for few hundred. These variables will all increase the amount of equipment needed to stand-up internet kiosks to ensure that each site has sufficient capacity to register all the residents in certain time period.

Recommendations on resource quantities

The data from sheltering operations combined with the variables in disaster shelter will make it difficult to accurately estimate the number of computers needed to register shelter residents. However, guidelines can be established based on the data to calculate the amount of equipment necessary to reach the target of registering as many people as possible in three days to minimize the amount of idle computers Two computers should be setup at each shelter with capacities of up to 100 residents. computer should be added for every additional 50 residents. This translates to three computers for shelters of 101 to 150 residents; four computers for shelters of 151 to 200 residents; and so on. Knowledgeable people should also be made available to help speed the process along by assisting people register and solving technical uses. They would also be physical presence to reduce the risk of theft, abuse and misuse of the equipment. Reference the Pew/Internet research study where about one–third of people need assistance with new technology, it makes sense that there should be one person for every three computers. Anticipating 10 to 12 hour shifts per person will double the staff needed when allowing near continuous access to the computers.

Online Social Networking Computer Demands

The internet access could be made available for casual internet browsing once all the fundamental disaster registration needs are handled. Being able to restrict the use of the computers at the start and then opening up the access later on will require special kiosk software. Users can only hit specific websites to encourage quick use of the computers to get as many people through as possible. While opening up the internet to all sites would allow people to use their preferred social networking site, it could also open up problems with accessing offensive or adult sites. Pew/Internet reports that 13% of people use the internet to visit adult websites and this material would not be welcome in most shelters Allowing 20 minutes online per activity per person, it would take about two and half days to rotate all the residents through in 80% of the hurricane shelter events analyzed. This is an obviously high demand for internet access. It is also important to realize that people will probably leave the shelters during the day to go back to their homes to recover items, clean up and rebuild their lives. This will place an even higher demand on the use of computers in the dark or evening hours so there will be peak in the morning when people get up before they leave and second peak in the evening when they return before lights out — instead of spreading the users evenly across 18 hours of the day Providing methods for the public to remain in contact with loved ones through the internet will be increasingly in demand, almost akin to providing public phone banks during disasters before cell phones made public pay phones near obsolete.


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