After Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana in August 2021, Lt. j.g. Marcus Thompson watched storm damage assessments stream into the Port Charles incident command center. Some teams emailed or texted photos of disaster sites. Others radioed or called in information that dispatchers scribbled on scraps of paper. A few expressed frustration that they couldn’t get through. As Thompson looked at the operational map, he couldn’t help thinking about how to improve the coordination of response.
“There were lots of gaps in information,” Thompson said, filling the role of division inspection chief with the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit in Port Charles, Louisiana. “It just felt like we were losing some of the details. Like we really didn’t have a full picture of what was going on out there.”
When Tropical Storm Nicholas rolled in a few weeks later, Thompson was ready to try something different. In the second round of storm response and damage assessments, units would use Mapstr, a free test app. Not only would it tag images with a location, all information and photos would be automatically transferred to the command center from the person’s phone or computer.
“It was great at providing real-time information to help us create a common operating picture for our team,” he said. “It was also really user friendly.”
The impetus for the trial came from an idea Thompson sent in mid-June to the 2021 Hurricane Lessons Learned challenge at CG_Ideas@Work.
The Hurricane Lessons Learned challenge is designed to help Coast Guard members collaborate with others who have experience in hurricane response, sharing information and ideas for improvements in real time. The Innovation Council initiated the challenge in 2017 after massive flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey took down the Coast Guard network, including Rescue 21, and the service had to quickly pivot to using cellular service and social media to conduct its historic rescue surge. The challenge is now held annually.
“With each storm, we learn something new,” said Cmdr. Pedro Vazquez, manager of the Coast Guard’s Innovation Program. “Through this challenge our members can share with others across the service and our leadership what they have discovered.”
The Coast Guard office of Emergency Management and Disaster Response (CG-OEM) and the Innovation Program reviews all challenge submissions. After that, ideas are forwarded to program offices for review, comment or action. Senior leaders have used the feedback to improve future contingency responses. Previous challenges have also led to new policy, such as the way social media was adopted to enhance response operations after Hurricane Harvey.
Thompson said he hesitated to submit to the challenge because someone suggested a similar idea last year. “But then I got some emails reminders,” he said, “and I thought ‘why not send it in?’”
It helps, Thompson notes, that he’s experienced the Coast Guard’s hurricane response from both sides. Soon after joining the Coast Guard, he did his share of port assessments following storms. Now he’s on the command and control side, he’s had a chance to see how all those assessments come together, and how they could be improved.
So far response to the trial use of Mapstr has been positive. This week, Thompson’s team held a hotwash to get more feedback from users and discuss how Mapstr was applied. They also decided to incorporate the app as part of the normal pre- and post-storm assessment.
The 2021 Hurricane Lessons Learned challenge runs through December 3, so there’s still plenty of time to send in your idea. We still have another month for Hurricane Season 2021, and with named storms so far this year on par with record-setting 2020, its likely many lessons remain.
You can access the 2021 Hurricane Lessons Learned challenge at https://cg-ideasatwork.ideascalegov.com/a/campaign-home/1166. If this is your first visit, follow the instructions to register using your .mil account.