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State of Emergency

Oracle helps Department of Human Services aid Australian fire survivors.

by Heather Boerner, August 2010

By 3 a.m. on the morning of February 7, 2009, the barometer showed 4 percent humidity, and a whipping wind buffeted Rita Harris’ sheep farm in the Australian town of Taggerty. By 11 a.m., it was so hot that the hairs on the back of her legs singed in the stifling heat. It was obvious that this was going to be an extreme day.

That would prove to be an understatement.

By midnight, the power and phone were out and Harris was choking on the thick orange smoke and swirling ash coming from fires raging in the Australian bush. She’d taken to watering down her house every few minutes to hedge against catastrophe. Flames nearly 200 feet high were breaking the stratosphere and towering over the 50-foot-high trees in her yard. Nearby petrol tanks were exploding at regular intervals. She describes the sound of the fire as deafening, like a thunderclap that goes on for hours.

“We thought there was a nuclear bomb,” she says. “It was literally like that. We stood there basically waiting to die.”

The fires started on what is now known as “Black Saturday,” scorching hundreds of thousands of acres and killing 173 people. It was the most devastating natural disaster in Australia’s history.

Harris, however, was one of the lucky ones. Her house still stood. But she was shaky and disoriented when she arrived at a relief center in the town of Yea, some 50 miles from her property. Then the horrifying reality began to set in: Had her friends and family survived? Could she continue to earn a living? What would happen next?

Crisis Intervention
As the fires raged in Taggerty, another crisis was heading toward the Department of Human Services (DHS) for the state of Victoria. Thousands of people were displaced from their homes or injured, or their businesses were destroyed. That meant a wave of displaced and traumatized people looking to the government for assistance.

In short order, government officials realized they would have to hire hundreds of new case managers to assist government agencies in targeting services to priority areas. This required a case management computer system that could track the survivors and connect them to the services they needed—and be nimble and scalable enough to evolve as the crisis changed.

“The enormity of the event and how quickly it occurred really put a lot of pressure on us to make decisions and get things in place very quickly,” says Grahame Coles, chief information officer at the DHS, whose team was tasked with creating the system that would support the relief effort. “We knew on Wednesday that we had to get a system in place by the following Monday.”

Although DHS had a PeopleSoft case management system from Oracle in place, it was configured for existing DHS processes and could not be quickly modified to meet the demands of the still-developing emergency. So Coles and his team searched for a new solution. Just 24 hours after the Victorian premier’s announcement that each survivor would have an assigned caseworker, Coles had selected Oracle CRM On Demand as the platform for DHS case management.

Oracle staff set to work, reconfiguring Oracle CRM On Demand to meet the needs of Victorian bushfire managers as they were deployed in the wake of the fires—a system that was both nimble and secure. It had to be simple enough for new case managers with no computer experience to navigate intuitively. It needed to display all the necessary case data on a single page, to simplify data input and allow for a case file to be printed with a single click.

Case managers also needed to track survivors as they moved from one temporary home to another. The system also had to be accessible through a secure internet connection for case managers on the road. And it had to be flexible and scalable enough to handle an influx of hundreds of new users and thousands of new cases.

“The case managers were being inducted and basically had 30 minutes’ training on how to use the system,” says Coles. “So when we had a look at the options, that was one of the main criteria: Can the system be basically self-taught? Can we get it out there with 30 minutes’ training?”

In only three days, the system was built and launched, tracking and assisting the 400 new case managers and the help they offered clients. It also managed the disbursement of more than AU$350 million in private donations to families in need, and the distribution of 26,000 pallets of material goods offered by fellow citizens. This donation management system received an award for innovation in public sector policy.

A Silver Lining
Oracle CRM On Demand is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution—often referred to as a cloud application—using remote Web hosting and secure Web connections to link caseworkers with DHS officials in Melbourne. This was especially important because in the far-flung rural areas of Victoria, where the fires devastated whole towns, there was little electricity, there were few DHS offices, and there was almost no time to compile notes gathered from weary fire survivors.

By deploying a SaaS solution, DHS ensured that the system would be accessible by wireless devices as case managers moved from one devastated community to another. The SaaS solution also allowed officials at the Victorian DHS headquarters in Melbourne to monitor what was happening in the field so they could provide the help survivors needed.

All the case managers had to do was enter their username and password, and they gained access to the files for all their clients: permanent addresses, temporary addresses, and any information already gathered about loss of property, loss of family members, business losses, and the services available and appropriate for them.

However, the technical expertise of the case managers was quite varied: indeed, some had never owned a cell phone, let alone worked with a cloud-based case management system. But Cindy Tarczon, a contract case manager who worked with Harris in the aftermath of the fire, says that the straightforward, single-page design of the system made it easy for case managers to learn and navigate. “It was very user friendly, and we were able to get up and running without any need for formalized training,” Tarczon says.

In the first four weeks, 4,000 cases were added to the system. By the end of the year, 5,500 people were in the system. And because officials in Melbourne were able to capture and collate the information coming in from case managers, they were able to quickly create social programs or mobilize services specific to the problems in a given region.

Tarczon believes the government’s response was quicker and more precise with Oracle CRM On Demand because the case files gave government workers a real-time snapshot of what was going on in the fire zone. “We were able to quickly gather accurate information from our clients about what was needed, what the thoughts were on the ground for those people in the community, and what welfare agencies and other support agencies really needed to be doing to be effective in this disaster,” she says.

Picking Up the Pieces
Another aspect of addressing the needs of those displaced by fires was delivering government aid once they were out of harm’s way. As the recovery effort kicked into high gear, the information that case managers in the field needed was changing too.

Because Oracle CRM On Demand was simple to use and easy to control, DHS officials were able to upload new versions of forms, policies, and other pertinent data, preventing case managers from operating on inaccurate information that might delay help to their clients.

“We used Oracle CRM On Demand to post key program documents,” says Colleen Clark, assistant director of the Victorian Bushfire Case Management Service at the DHS. “We put up the guidelines, the policies, the consent forms. All of the documents they would need on a day-to-day basis, we were able to post on there. They could all easily access it, and it allowed us to manage version control. [Oracle CRM On Demand] facilitated communication in a fairly seamless way.”

After the fires, Harris formed a close bond with her case manager Tarczon, who arranged financial assistance and access to services. At a time when Harris was still struggling with the losses she and her community had endured—and when she was still waking every morning to a landscape that looked more like the burnt crust of another planet than Taggerty—support from the DHS was something she couldn’t have done without.

“I’m glad somebody’s thinking of the big picture,” Harris remembers thinking. “It meant that we went home thinking that the next couple of months were organized. You just have no idea of the impact of having five and a half weeks of not knowing if you’re going to lose your home or not and gradually discovering that friends of yours have died.”

 

For More Information
Cloud Computing: The Future of Public Sector IT
Oracle Public Sector Solutions
Oracle CRM On Demand
Video: Victoria Department of Human Services At Work

 


Heather Boerner is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, California.

 

 
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