Thursday, September 10, 2015

Brilliant Lecture by Dr. George Karagiannis on Risk Assessment and Disaster Management

One of the best parts of the intellectual life at a university is the wonderful people -faculty, students, and staff - plus guest speakers that one interacts with.

Today, we had the great pleasure and honor of hosting Dr. George Karagiannis from the Technical University of Crete, who I had met last summer at the Dynamics of Disasters conference that I co-organized in Kalamata, Greece. When he told me that he would be in Boston this week to speak at the Coastal Disasters conference and was eager to also speak at UMass Amherst, I knew that this was an opportunity that we could not miss out on.

Through the assistance of the UMass Transportation Center, the UMass ITE Chapter, as well as the UMass Amherst INFORMS Student Chapter, and the Isenberg School of Management, his visit to our campus and his presentation were a great success. The title of his talk was: "Coordination by Design, or the Common Operational Picture: From Risk Assessment to Disaster Response." George has completed 2 national risk assessments - for Greece and Malta and has worked also with the Greek Red Cross and the training of workers of the German Red Cross. He has immense field experiene and he had the audience captivated.

I was a bit anxious since he was traveling from Boston via Peter Pan bus lines and his arrival was to be shortly after my Transportation and Logistics class was ending. I made it to the Fine Arts bus stop 2 minutes before the bus arrived and together we went to the University Club for a delicious lunch which was hosted by the Transportation group of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (a big thank you).  Attending the lunch were: Professor and Associate Dean John Collura, Professor Eric Gonzales, and two former UMass Amherst INFORMS Student Chapter Presidents: Michael Prokle and Shivanii Shukla.

Faculty and students came to Dr. Karagiannis' talk from the Isenberg School of Management, the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering.

We learned about civil defense and organization of military operations and how they differ from emergency preparedness and disaster relief today. In the former, the organization is always hierarchical whereas in the latter each involved organization can have a hierarchical structure but the key to success is coordination. In many disaster relief operations there can be dozens or even hundreds of organizations involved so information exchange and situational awareness and a common operational picture are essential. Nevertheless, even with the latest in software and ICT if there is not trust among the stakeholders, that is, if the network has not been built on relationships, then there will not be success. Also, the emergency managers must be trained accordingly in the use of technology. In addition, Dr. Karagiannis emphasized the importance of capturing real time data efficiently and then one can make use of operations research tools more effectively. But getting the data quickly is still a major challenge in disasters even with the prevalence of social media (which messages can be trusted?).

Coordination is imperative; otherwise, locations may receive relief materials in duplicate or supplies not needed whereas others have shortages or no relief supplies.

What is needed is Next Generation Emergency Management - in essence, a Dr. Spock from Star Trek.

He also emphasized the migrant crisis facing the European Union for the past several months which has greatly accelerated recently. He spoke of the European Commission as not being a political union and, hence, decision-making can be very protracted despite earlier studies of scenarios foretelling the migrant crisis, decision-making is hampered. There were even decisions made earlier as to where to build shelters.

Tools act as a bridge between people but it is the network connecting people that is essential for the success of emergency operations. And, as Dr. Karagiannis noted in his talk, there is a disaster striking somewhere in the world every week and every 3 weeks one that requires international intervention. Disasters cannot be managed just by throwing resources at them.

Needless to say, Dr. Karagiannis' brilliant lecture, filled with many vivid examples, including a crash in a tunnel (and which county/province would be responsible for relief) brought the issue out dramatically to the audience. This will be a talk that we will be discussing for a long time to come and it has stimulated many exciting research questions.