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The American Red Cross Prepares for Disaster With Wireless LAN

When disaster strikes, the American Red Cross Disaster Service operates like a huge mobile warehouse, setting up, on a moment's notice, locations for receiving and storing thousands of pallets of food, supplies and equipment, and efficiently distributing those supplies to disaster victims. These operations often take place under extreme conditions: heavy storms, power and telephone outages, continuing floods and other logistical difficulties posed by the preceding destruction. Field houses for relief operations must be swiftly set up and often moved during the course of the operation.

When relief needs have been met, they must be shut down quickly and the equipment made ready for immediate deployment to a new disaster site.

Application: High-capacity, Automated System
Prior to adopting a wireless application, the American Red Cross used paper-based inventory systems. Richard Hoffman, senior systems programmer with the American Red Cross National Headquarters, said recent disasters demonstrated the need for a high-capacity, automated system.

The primary requirements for the new system were mobility, reliability, ease-of-use by staff and volunteer workers, and the ability to provide six to eight hours of continuous battery operation in the event of a power failure.

Secondary requirements included tight tracking of accounting and traceability records of materials and donated goods used during the operation, in order to meet IRS tracking requirements. The system tracks everything from perishables and water to equipment such as fax machines, cellular phones and tables and chairs. The system also maintains warehouse data and transmits that data to a central logistics database at the local disaster operational headquarters. (The Red Cross central logistics database enables it to provide a current inventory of all relief material on hand for the entire operation.)

Benefits: : Flexibility, Ease of set-up
Flexibility: The system provides mobile communication across large areas, through walls and over high stacks of relief supplies. In addition, the hand-held units were equipped to operate in a batch mode when out of range, which allows them to store the information until back in range. This eliminates the need to cover every square inch of the warehouse with radio frequency.

Ease-of-use: Since much of the data collection and operation is done by quickly-trained volunteers with varying degrees of prior computer experience, a simple pen-based interface was chosen for the hand-held PCs.

Together, the components of the wireless system for the American Red Cross provide flexibility. In addition to having mobility and ease-of-use, the system can be easily expanded when necessary.

"The ability to quickly add new notebooks was a factor in choosing a wireless LAN system," Hoffman said. "Adding a workstation to the network is a fairly simple matter. And making future upgrades will be inexpensive and easy."

Installation Size
The American Red Cross conducted an evaluation program of the system's inventory control and management capabilities at their national supply warehouse in Lorton, Virginia.

"Whenever the next disaster strikes, the system will be sent to the field for a trial under fire," said Hoffman.

After the product deployment has been completed and positively evaluated, a five-warehouse initial rollout of the complete system will begin. If initial installations prove successful, the software will be made available to more than 2,000 local Red Cross chapters across the country, for use in maintaining a supply warehouse and relief materials for state and local-level disasters.

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