How technology is helping responders save lives during disasters like the California wildfires


California-based Direct Relief is celebrating its 70th anniversary this month. The humanitarian aid organization, active in 50 states and more than 80 countries, is utilizing technology in the effort to support those in crisis.

Not every disaster is the same, but sometimes people are forced to evacuate, or be on the move, with little notice. Such is the case of Californias largest wildfire this month in and around Mendocino County. The maps above were made by Andrew Schroeder, Direct Relief director of research.

The maps show the details of evacuation patterns. This is crucial for relief agencies trying to direct resources and aid where they are needed.

Schroeder said one of the challenges for health centers and other help providers during any natural disaster is figuring out the best way to allocate services to a shifting population.

“How do you know where they are? (Help providers) tend to make educated guesses, going to where there are not that many people and reallocating (resources) again,” Schroeder said. “There is a bunch of time that gets wasted in that process.”

Population movement during Mendocino complex fire

This data was derived from Facebooks Disaster Maps tool, which shares aggregated insights from the Facebook platform with organizations such as Direct Relief and the Red Cross working in disaster response.

Surveying vulnerability

Direct Relief CEO Thomas Tighe said the organization has the largest charitable medical distribution facility in the U.S.

Tighe said, “After the Katrina disaster (August 2005) we noticed medications for people with chronic health issues were much in demand. Hypertension, diabetes and asthma are the three biggest health issues we are addressing in supporting community clinics and health centers.”

The organization that began in 1948 by helping refugees after World War II is now mapping where people are most vulnerable before and during disasters to give better support.

Mapping of where the oldest, youngest and most impoverished are is key to getting medical kits, vitamins, medicine or solar power kits to the right places quickly.

High-tech assistance

After Hurricane Maria left Puerto Ricos power grid in a shambles in 2017, Direct Relief helped tranistion Puerto Ricos health centers to a solar-powered smart grid. This will help prevent interruptions in care caused by future natural disasters. Direct Relief is providing dozens of local health facilities with reliable energy sources, including solar power and battery storage. The solar/battery systems are integrated with existing generators and the grid to give each health center a true smart microgrid system that can pull power from the most efficient source and never go dark.

The last area to be without power was back on the grid this week, 11 months after the devastation began.

By hurricane season in 2019, Direct Relief and partners aim to install resilient power and backup power systems in at least one health center in all 78 municipalities on the island to ensure everyone has a place to go to get medical care after a storm.

When disaster hits home

Your best chance to make it through an emergency is to plan ahead for you and your family. Visit for help making a plan.

You can begin by discussing these four questions:

  1. How will I receive emergency alerts and warnings?
  2. What is my shelter plan?
  3. What is my evacuation route?
  4. What is my family/household communication plan?

Emergency kits are available in many places such as the Red Cross,, or just to name a few.

Get a kit

Buy or build a kit for home, car and office. Kits vary in price and size.

Dial 211

If you find yourself in an evacuation situation or time of crisis, remember the numbers 211.

The number will connect you to a community resource specialist that can held find services and resources.

In 2000, the United Way and other organizations lobbied the FCC to make 211 a dedicated number for people in need.

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