by Christine Miller
Floods, fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, bombs, riots, chemical spills,air pollution -- these events seem impossible to deal with. But one small software company, EIS International, is helping to prepare businesses and federal agencies to cope with disasters in a more efficient manner.
EIS (Emergency Information Systems) International Corporation was founded in 1975 by James Morentz, who recognized the need to prepare for, and communicate during, disasters. 'It slowly began to crystallize in my mind that long telefaxes and phone calls with information were not enough. People in a crisis needed more,' says Morentz. He borrowed heavily and began designing a crisis management software in his home. In 1979, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was formed. Inthe same year, Morentz began working as a consultant and publishing a newsletter, Hazard Monthly. Hazard Monthly was 'launched in order tofill an information gap and reassure state and local governments aboutwhat was happening in the new Federal Emergency Management Agency.' In1993, Morentz began serious expansion of the slowly growing company. Today, EIS International has business partnerships with EDS Corporation, NEC Corporation, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and is officially certified by 24 state emergency management agencies as theirstandard for information management, especially related to planning for hazardous materials accident response.
Why is off-the-shelf crisis management software becoming the trend inthese organizations? Computers have only come into their own over thelast twenty-five years, and before that, there was little technologythat could house disaster planning and response information.
Originally, federal institutions, like FEMA, and corporate institutions, like Union Carbide, had their own in-house computer departments to compile information on disasters and disaster response. These departments were expensive to maintain and had difficulty distributing information to outside facilities. In addition, says Bob Bollinger, president of Bollinger EHS Consultants and contributing member of the Environmental, Health, & Safety Software Development Group (EHSSDG), 'engineers who originally conceived of the in-house software often didn't leave directions on how to use it. If they left the company and a new person came in, there were no instructions. Many of the results were printed out on spreadsheets, were not easy to understand, and couldn't be exchanged easily.' Department information was based on mainframes, before personal computers (PCs) were introduced. Faxes and phone calls were the only means of communication during disasters at sites other than the organization's headquarters, and you could not count on the phone lines being up.
With the introduction of PCs into everyday life, mainframes have become almost obsolete. This leaves room for the client-server, or PC-based Local Area Network (LAN) systems. LAN systems make it easier for organizations to standardize all information and make it accessible to off-site facilities and institutions needing access. EIS has taken advantage of new technology and the need for better communication and has solved planning and communication problems that federal and corporate institutions have needed for years.
EIS International now has two major software products and incorporates over 15 other databases and software. The EIS InfoBook for Windows (EIS/Win), an emergency management software package, and EHS/LifeCycle, an environmental, health and safety package, are the two packages that EIS International is now marketing. Each package is set up like a three ring notebook binder. You just click on an InfoTab and then you view the information. There are 'pages' that can be customized in each book for additional information or notes. It is extremely user friendly and easily updated. These strong attributes are what makes EIS/Win and EHS/LifeCycle two of the biggest names in crisis management software packages today.
One customized package that EIS International has produced is VOIS, the Virginia Operational Information System. Originally, the Virginia Department of Transportation used EIS/Win, but little by little, the Virginia Emergency Management Department, the Forestry Department, and State Police wanted to communicate and share information using EIS International Software. Today, this revolutionary new product is being used across the state of Virginia to communicate the needs of each participating department and to share essential information. It has also gained interest from other states in need of a 100% management tool.
Over the past twenty years, EIS International has been educating federal agencies about emergency management software. Morentz began by explaining at conferences the need for software to plan for response to disasters. This education effort is still in full force, but today, Morentz uses working examples rather than hopeful ideas to show to convince his audience.
In 1992, The Wall Street Journal published an article on emergency management software and how it should have been used in the Hurricane Andrew disaster ('Software Can Speed Hurricane Response,' September 22, 1992). 'In a disaster, computers are fundamental, because you're getting too much data to keep track of by manual methods,' Robert Reed, director of the Emergency Planning and Administration Institute at North Texas University in Denton, Texas, said to the Wall Street Journal. Florida's lack of an efficient computerized information system in 1992 during Andrew showed in their response efforts.
'Some states haven't seen a need for technology. Now, Florida has seen it a little too late,' said Joseph LaFleur, then the director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA). In 1992, PEMA was considered to be the most technologically prepared emergency management agency in the nation. In 1986, following five separate 'federal disasters' in 18 months, PEMA bought EIS/Win. Sixty-four lives were taken in Erie county that year due to tornadoes. 'What happens is you get too many requests too fast. I couldn't find helicopters. I couldn't find chain saws to cut trees off trailers. I lost lives,' said Marsh Johnson, head of operation for PEMA. But, PEMA has since incorporated EIS/Win into every workday and has the ability to prepare for any emergency in Pennsylvania.
EIS International software is now used by chemical, petrochemical, pharmaceutical, manufacturing, pulp and paper, electronics, and transportation companies. The newest effort on the part of EIS is its Environmental, Health and Safety Software.
In 1971, the EPA was founded and the first PC was produced. Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) software is the product of EPA enforced regulations and everyday PC use. EIS International produces EHS/LifeCycle, a software product with ten modules to track varying processes, some of which are waste, reporting to the EPA, inventory of every daily consumption and production, and personnel. These are the four major needs of most companies. EIS projects that in the next five years, it will have extra databases which will handle the ordering of materials, invoicing of services, and all other management needs.
EIS International is cautious about mentioning companies that use their EHS/Life Cycle software, since many companies don't want to admit that they use outside sources to regulate their facilities. 'We are working with a few different companies right now that are testing our software. We hope to announce which companies by the first of the year,' said K.C. Chartrand, Director of Marketing and Publishing at EIS International. 'We have heard nothing but positive feedback from these organizations, but they are still finalizing their tests and do not want to go on record until everything has been tried.'
EIS International has won awards for its outstanding software. By fall of 1997, Morentz predicts that EIS will have at least one more product line, similar to VOIS. With more than 4,500 crisis and chemical management systems installed in every state and more than two dozen countries, the firms' products are proven standards of excellence and will continue to provide a service to its users. Morentz says about the future of EIS software, 'Decisions need to made, sometimes within seconds, or else you have a problem or you miss an opportunity. I see our product using the same interface, but being adapted to reach out to other people. We will continue to work to make our customers happy.'