Technology for social good - Cisco's disaster response efforts

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett July 23, 2017
Cisco spends $3.5 million per year on maintaining a dedicated disaster relief team. Here's why.

Hurricane Katrina

In the second in our series exploring how different types of technology are used for social good, networking giant Cisco explains why it spends $3.5 million per year on maintaining a dedicated disaster relief team.

Its efforts saw it win one of two possible accolades in the ‘UPS International Relief and Resilience’ category of Business in the Community’s Responsible Business Awards 2017.

Although Cisco may invest a huge $3.5 million per annum on disaster response activities, it has found there are a good few business advantages to taking corporate social responsibility so seriously.

While the networking giant committed itself in 2016 to have a positive impact on the lives of one billion people by 2025, in fact, its work in the ‘business with purpose’ arena began much earlier.

The company first set up its Tactical Operations (TacOps) programme in 2003 to support the US military during the war with Iraq. But when Hurricane Katrina devastated the east coast of the US in 2005, it also sent out expertise to help.

On realising that its response had not been sufficiently coordinated, the decision was taken to morph TacOps into a full-blown disaster response capability, which now employs nine full-time staff. The team, which is based at both the firm’s headquarters in San Jose, California, and another site in North Carolina, comprises a mix of network engineers and logistics coordinators who can deploy anywhere in the world within three days.

The aim is to offer on-the-ground expertise to ensure that emergency workers have access to the communications technology required to help them do their jobs. As a result, support is also provided either in the shape of Network Emergency Response Vehicles, which contain a range of pre-packaged and preconfigured communications equipment, or an ‘Office-in-a-box’ portable system if vehicles are unable to make it to the desired location.

But on top of its dedicated disaster response team, Cisco can also call on up to 350 trained employee volunteers known as the Disaster Incident Response Team (DIRT). Based in the UK, Ireland, Brazil, greater China and four sites in the US, DIRT members are allowed to work under the command of TacOps personnel for up to two weeks without losing pay or being expected to take holiday leave.

Business benefits of CSR

As to why Cisco would be prepared to fund such activity out of its own pocket, Sue Lynn Hinson, who manages the TacOps team, indicates that beyond the usual employee engagement and brand strengthening benefits, there are also a number of other advantages:

We’ve got large Response Vehicles with a lot of Cisco technology in so it’s effectively a Cisco-on-Cisco showcase, which helps to sell equipment for us as we can really prove how well it works. Some agencies have even built vehicles based on ours – for example, Brazil built 27 trucks based on our design to support major events such as sports.

Moreover, the experience gained out in the field is fed back into product design and development to improve existing products or even develop new ones where there are gaps in the market. Products are also field-tested to ensure they are up to scratch, and finally, if crisis strikes at one of the company’s own facilities, it is able to mobilise help to manage the crisis very quickly.

Other important activities for the TacOps team during periods of non-deployment include spending time developing relationships and working with agencies such as the United Nations and local and state governments in order to share best practice. Members likewise take on speaking engagements to demonstrate thought leadership and share lessons learned.

But the nature of the work that TacOps takes on is also starting to change somewhat. When the team was first formed, the focus was predominantly on servicing the needs of limited numbers of people working within disaster response agencies. But says Hinson:

Quite a lot of what we do is no longer servicing the requirements of just a few people. Because we’ve been helping out with the refugee crisis in Europe, it means there are now masses of people to help. But it involves quite a different way of working as, in the past, we deployed our solution and pulled out after about a month as things were restored. With the refugee situation, however, some of our networks have been out there for years. So how to ensure things are sustained effectively are the key challenges we face going forward.

Next on the list of ‘tech for social good’ candidates are a couple of companies that won the ‘Fujitsu Responsible Business in the Digital Age’ category of Business in the Community’s Responsible Business Awards 2017.

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