Counterfire

By Leah Moodaley

Natural disasters create a climate for teamwork and synergy. Graeme Huddy shares how information technology played a role in fighting the Knysna Inferno.

 Graeme Huddy took up the position of Information Technology (IT) Manager at Knysna Municipality just nine months ago. Who could have known the obstacles and opportunities this new venture and new year would bring? Jokingly, he describes his current role as the manager of IT (and anything else that uses electricity).

What role could an IT Manager and his team possibly play in a disaster response task?
“The first day of the fire was a sick day for me. I saw the fire on the Western Heads from my house and went down to the beach at Bollard Bay to have a better look. Driving along, I saw that our primary municipal communications tower for our wireless networks in Brenton might be destroyed by the fire. I immediately texted our network engineer, Jaco, to tell him we were possibly about to lose Brenton communications tower.” The repercussion of losing the Brenton communications tower meant that Knysna Municipality’s remote offices (approximately 35 locations) would lose telephone and internet connectivity.

“I then got a message from a colleague to say that Wi-Fi at the office was down, followed by our power shortly thereafter. I knew that we would be running on a backup power supply and that we needed to urgently shut down our servers safely before they started failing, so I made my way back in to town and called my team so that we could start shutting the servers down to protect our data. I then got a call from another  colleague, telling me that there was no power at the fire station and that the fire control room’s phones were down. In the midst of all this, I contacted the technician that was contracted to service our uninterrupted power  supplies (UPS) to bring a spare UPS to the fire station to use with a few extra batteries that I had in storage. After dropping everything at the fire station, I remembered that the finance building where IT is located has an operational generator; I suggested that it would be the best possible location to coordinate operations from.”

The finance building, situated at the bottom of Queen Street, soon became the joint operations command (JOC) centre. Graeme’s team ensured that multiple agencies (fire, safety, traffic, medical, municipal, provincial, etc.) working on the disaster response had internet access, power banks for charging cellphones on the go, mobile Wi-Fi devices and any other technology needed. “We had power from the generator and we had internet access, but our external telephone lines were down and MTN, Cell C and Telkom’s mobile network connectivity was intermittent. In the early evening, as the fire started to rage through town, I purchased two Skype phone numbers and posted those numbers on social media so that people could get through to the ‘emergency contact centre’. First thing the next
morning, I bought five cellphones and set them up with Vodacom SIM cards so that we had a few extra phone
lines available.

About 24 hours into the disaster, the Telkom connectivity was re-established, and once available, Graeme’s team had to redirect communications via an alternative communications tower to get the fire station’s phones up and running as the Brenton communications tower was still inaccessible at this point. Back at the finance building, all of the agencies, including the army, had various connectivity requirements and IT support requirements such as setting up the software used to live stream footage from the fire-spotting planes. Graeme’s team worked tirelessly to meet these requirements and build network infrastructure where needed. One team member, Lyle, developed a process using SharePoint where all incoming emergency calls were automatically logged and read by a controller
upstairs, who could then dispatch the appropriate emergency team. Lyle unfortunately lost his house in the fire,
but not once failed to lose sight of his role in helping Knysna overcome the crisis they found themselves in.

“From an IT perspective, we never had to go into disaster recovery mode. Throughout the disaster, all IT systems
were available for use,” explains Graeme. The IT team was able to support all disaster response teams adequately;
systems that were not available due to damage from the fire, were quickly repaired.

“Before the fire, we were in the process of assessing what the risks of losing IT services for each business unit are, and what the IT disaster recovery needs are. Our risk analysis never envisioned a disaster of this magnitude, hence we hadn’t planned for a situation like this, but we were very lucky.” Graeme points out that when risks are assessed and mapped, some risks are regarded as having a higher risk factor than others. This is normal. The likelihood of certain risk events is analysed against existing data and projected forecasts, and informed decisions are made as to where resources and disaster strategies would most likely need to be directed. He acknowledges that in terms of  disaster recovery, the more likely scenario would have been a massive flood, not a catastrophic inferno.

“When we carried out our business impact assessments, we assessed the risk of losing voice communications and
data communication for our precinct. Many resources were uncovered and put to use to fight the Knysna Inferno. People came together and many ideas were explored. A municipal mobile application was put to the test during the disaster. Graeme gave the go-ahead to upgrade the application and once it was upgraded, it was used as a communication channel. At the time of going to print, the application had 3 100 registered users, 43 newsfeed articles, sent 76 push notifications, resolved 57 live chat support calls, and received 33 feedback items.
In addition to the Knysna Municipality mobile application, the Municipality sent 128 998 fire related SMSs during the disaster.

We agreed that it would be catastrophic, but also agreed that the likelihood of it actually happening at the same time is almost non-existent. But then this actually happened.” He goes on to explain the uniqueness of the situation in saying that the Great Knysna Fire happened 150 years ago, whereas flooding and network outages happen more regularly. “We were completely surrounded by fire in the middle of the night on 7 June. Teams worked 24/7 throughout the following week, coming in and out in shifts. Everyone worked above and beyond, tirelessly.
The JOC centre, including all strategic and emergency response teams, was the most professionally-run meeting I have ever attended. There were no egos, no arguments, just professional cooperation.”

The key lesson learned is that IT must form part of the business continuity (or in this case JOC) process as it can be central in managing and mitigating the impact of incidents like this one. Graeme and his team are proof that any disaster situation requires focus, prioritisation, out-of-the-box thinking and a willingness to cooperate.

Back row from left to right: Clifford Mitchell, Lyle Cleinwerck, Jaco Bester, Louise Maritz.
Front row from left to right: Graeme Huddy, Genevieve van Briesies, Lezelle Plaatjies, William Talmaggies.