Technology: City of Portland in Oregon strengthens State of Emergency response with real-time data, US
Emergency situations are nothing new, but for many cities, they are difficult but brief moments: fires, floods, earthquakes. This has all been upended during COVID-19, when a city’s emergency response teams have been activated for months, creating an unprecedented challenge for its workforce. Deploying the right resources for the right job has never been more critical.
The City of Portland is no different. When they looked to activate their emergency response teams earlier this year, it was clear that the manual process that worked for short-term emergencies was not going to work for the long-haul demands of COVID-19. An update to the way they used their HR software turned out to be the boost the team needed to streamline the complexity of the emergency staffing process so they could focus on helping their community members through the crisis.
The complexities of managing emergency response
The City has an emergency care and coordination team that convenes at the City’s Emergency Coordination Centre. Employees from all offices are designated to participate. Over the years, the City has activated this team to respond to fires and floods for short periods of time and there is an involved, paper-based process of reassigning team members to new positions, managing schedules and assigning roles and responsibilities to make sure that daily activities are balanced alongside the emergency tasks.
Pre-COVID-19, this was a manual process that, while tedious, was temporary. But when COVID-19 hit, “it immediately became clear this process wouldn’t work for the long haul,” said Vineeta Rawal, senior business system analyst at the City of Portland, Bureau of Technology Services (BTS).
The size and scope of the crisis meant Portland needed a lot of people to manage new or different tasks changing every few days like data management; organisational charts; matching employee skills to roles and scheduling availability and finance and reporting, so the group needed to understand direct and matrixed relationships to help make decisions about who could support the City’s response to the crisis. Just as importantly, the manual process was obligating essential workers to come into the office to tackle this task: putting them at risk of contracting the virus. Something had to change.
Real-time adaptation to manage COVID-19
It was clear Portland needed a digital tool to help manage the challenge, so City staff member Judy Baker-Johnson collaborated with Rawal and her team for a solution. It was a tall order: it needed to be delivered very quickly and it had to work well, but developing it in real time with pressing challenges meant they couldn’t make it too complex. Within a week, the team delivered a workaround to start addressing the challenge and within four weeks, delivered a completely new system.
Using SAP Success Factors, a solution Portland was already using, they created an interactive organizational chart, allowing the team to assign jobs and roles tied to emergency response positions to account for any cost associated with supporting COVID-19. This solution choice was intentional: with the urgency of the project, using a platform the team was already familiar with meant there would be less downtime with training. The impact was immediate:
“The maintenance of this data has been very seamless,” said Rawal. “ECC staff is able to send a report to the finance team every evening, with information on how the FEMA/CARES money is being spent, who reports to whom and who is working the next day. We are tracking detailed fund allocation of money.”
Building a foundation for the future
The impact of this project during COVID-19 has been significant but the City sees this as an opportunity to prepare for the future and already has plans to rollout out this application across the organization so other departments can experience the benefit.
“Of course we all hope that nothing like this ever happens again but with this situation emergency response staff needed to think about a long-term solution: in the case of any future emergency situation, they’ll be able to activate a separate ECC unit within Success Factors so that they can immediately start working on the challenge,” said Rawal.
This crisis has also clearly demonstrated the flexibility and speed that cloud-based technologies can offer the City long past the current situation. For example: a virtual workforce will no doubt be a lasting effect of COVID-19 and cloud-based software will provide City employees with a stable and secure environment to keep up with their work at home or in the office.
According to Diana Allen, technology manager, responsible for the City’s SAP platform, “the value of this effort reconfirms our strategic direction as we continue our digital transformation to meet the City’s evolving business needs.”