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Back to Archives | Back to March 2006 Contents 

Communications: Hurricanes Katrina and Rita Missing Persons Hotline: Harnessing Technology to Reunite Families

By Ben J. Ermini, Executive Director of Case Management Operation (Retired), National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Alexandria, Virginia

n the chaos caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, more than 5,000 children were separated from their loved ones. Such separations are traumatic for children, parents, and guardians alike, and rarely in U.S. history have these separations occurred on such a large scale. In the days and weeks after the storms, some 411,000people dispersed to 48 states, and tracking and reunifying these fractured families was an enormous challenge.

n the wake of the storms, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) mobilized a network to locate, identify, and reunite family members. This work represented a bright spot in the storms' aftermath. In spite of the challenges-little communication infrastructure in affected areas, families moving from shelter to shelter and state to state- 5,050 of the 5,182 missing children cases reported to NCMEC were resolved. Working with federal, state, and local law enforcement along with other agencies, NCMEC achieved a 98 percent success rate for reuniting families.

Photograph by Bob Bird
Reuniting families is something that NCMEC does almost every day, but the sheer scope of this event was like nothing anyone had faced before. NCMEC had the know-how and tools to locate children and their parents but needed to amplify its resources and efforts quickly and efficiently to handle the enormous volume of cases. Technology helped: it allowed NCMEC to quickly take reports and to disseminate missing children posters electronically and via the media to millions of people. The employed technology gave the organization almost instantaneous access to diverse databases across the United States, increasing the speed with which investigators could find and follow leads. Technology combined with dedicated professionalism of the staff is what helped NCMEC achieve it high success rate.

Photograph by Bob Bird
Mobilizing the Katrina and Rita Hotline
In the early days after the storm, the U.S. Department of Justice asked NCMEC to staff a hotline for reporting and reuniting separated children and families. As NCMEC President Ernie Allen said, "We were eager and willing to assist. This is what we do."

NCMEC had many resources already in place, such as the ability to rapidly mobilize a system of 30 phones. Equally important, NCMEC had the human resources on hand to answer the phones. NCMEC has a pool of 160 trained and certified retired police officers, called Project Alert. These men and women were ready to take calls, and, because of their years of experience and the established NCMEC protocol, they knew what questions to ask. NCMEC operates a year-round hotline, 1-800-THE-LOST, and the experience of its in-house communication specialists proved valuable in creating the Katrina and Rita missing persons hotline.

Photograph by Bob Bird
Within three days, the phone center was up and running. NCMEC had called on consultant Peter Bellmio, former director of public safety for Decatur, Illinois, to analyze its capacity and to recommend ways to operate the center during this crisis. During this phase of the emergency, most organizations and government agencies assisting with the hurricanes aftermath were facing communications problems, including an overload of incoming telephone calls, to the point that no one could get through to the agencies by phone. NCMEC did not want to contribute to victims' frustration and helplessness; it wanted to provide solutions. In Bellmio's words, "We agreed that it was our job that these phones would be answered and that no one would be left out there."

NCMEC set up its call center in a room that normally serves as a training center. The center had only a few phone jacks, but it did permit Internet connections with Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP. Running the phones through an Internet server provided flexibility, and it was much cheaper and faster than traditional phone lines.

The phone center dedicated 24 of the available 30 lines to handle incoming calls. The staff established the objective of handling incoming calls in two minutes or less to prevent the incoming calls from queuing or being abandoned by the caller. Whenever possible, callbacks were performed later, using the six remaining lines or cellular phones. On-time callbacks were important since in many cases people had called the hotline after standing in line waiting for a public phone at the Astrodome or another public shelter. Call center staff made every effort to get back to people at the time they had promised.

This system worked well. Early in the process, media representatives called to test NCMEC's lines and reported that they were impressed by the hotline's capacity. At its peak, the hotline was handling 2,000 reports per day.

The hotline went live on Labor Day, September 5, 2005. "When we flipped the phones on it was an onslaught; it was overwhelming," said Bellmio, who served as the hotline's first floor manager. "We had people who were still trapped in their houses calling us."

Using Photo Technology
The NCMEC Katrina and Rita hotline was only one of the many technological tools used to help reunite families. In miss­ing children cases, a recent photograph is the most important tool used by investiga­tors. The hurricanes put law enforcement officials at a great disadvantage because many families had to leave everything be­hind, including identification and photos of children and other family members.

NCMEC had some terrific resources available to fill this gap. One of NCMEC's corporate partners supplied NCMEC's Team Adam, composed of retired investiga­tors with expertise in missing child cases and already deployed to the affected com­munities, with digital cameras, which they used to photograph children in shelters. The same corporate partner supplied the Louisiana Clearinghouse for Missing and Exploited Children with a scanner to scan photos that they had on hand. Another cor­porate partner, who takes school portraits of children across the country, provided NCMEC with children's photographs that they had on file when no others were avail­able. All of these photo resources were put to use in creating posters of missing chil­dren and family members, which were posted on the Internet and shown on the major cable and broadcast networks. Con­sidering that there were thousands of peo­ple in shelter at the Houston Astrodome, some posters were even shown on the Astrodome's huge electronic screen to find missing people in that shelter.

Digital photo technology and the Inter­net increased the speed with which NCMEC can disseminate critical informa­tion about missing children. In the 1980s and 1990s, when NCMEC used traditional photography, it took two weeks to com­plete a missing child poster. A decade ago, photographs had to be developed or copied and a poster designed and laid out and then sent to a printer. In some cases, the child had been recovered before NCMEC could even distribute the posters. Today, with digital technology, creating a poster takes about a half hour and posting it on the Internet or disseminating it elec­tronically takes just a moment.

Many reunifications occurred after people recognized a child in a photograph they saw on television and then called the missing persons hotline.

Software and Information Sharing
Another advantage in the storms' after­math was NCMEC's new case manage­ment software, the Simple Leads Manage­ment. This software program, created in collaboration with a focus group of investi­gators experienced in child abduction, is designed for use by an investigator without the help of technical staff. NCMEC's chief information officer, Peg Flick, adapted the program to suit the needs of the post-Katrina effort, and it per­formed well, processing some 15,000 leads.

Managing data constituted an enor­mous task in the reunification effort, and NCMEC's Case Analysis Support Division took it on without hesitation. Not only did the support division capture and process leads that came across the hotline, the division's staff sought to match these with hundreds of external databases in order to locate missing family members.

NCMEC's Information Technology Department stayed busy writing and adapting software to suit the needs of the investigation: capturing and storing data, generating reports, and comparing it with outside databases. "A major problem we encountered," said Flick, "was that every organization involved in Katrina relief felt it had to create its own Web site to register missing people. There was simply too much information to search through." So Flick and her staff created specialized search software quickly. "We didn't try to put everything in a consistent format," says Flick, "but simply put it into a search­able collection. It was like being able to Google something. We could bring up all Web pages where that person's name ap­peared in just a few minutes."

Kristen Anderson, supervisor of NCMEC's Case Analysis Unit and former chief of police in Port Townsend, Washington, agreed that creating special software to search a variety of data sources was a critical tool. But so were the relationships that gave NCMEC access to those sources. "We have ongoing relation­ships with a number of agencies, such as the U.S. Postal Service, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the FBI, which local law enforcement may not have. Those relationships make it easier for us to share information with those agencies."

For example, the U.S. Postal Service set up temporary zip codes in shelters and gave evacuees post office boxes within those zip codes, which helped with both communica­tion and tracking. The Postal Service helped NCMEC match its lists to their database of people who had filled out change-of-ad-dress cards after they moved to another shelter or elsewhere. This was critical information, as families left homeless by the storms had dispersed all over the country. In addi­tion, NCMEC located a number of people who had moved into subsidized housing after the storms by sharing and matching data with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Where NCMEC had developed suffi­cient information to meet the requirement of the FBI's National Crime Information missing persons database, the missing no­tices were placed on the FBI system. Thus the search effort was collaborated with the FBI as well as state and local law enforcement.

NCMEC also exported data to other col­laborating organizations, such as the Louisiana Clearinghouse for Missing and Exploited Children. To do so, NCMEC staff wrote numerous exporting utilities to provide that data in several formats.

NCMEC also shared resources and in­formation with the National Center for Missing Adults (NCMA), as cases frequent­ly overlapped. NCMEC provided NCMA with its Locater (Lost Child Alert Technology Resource) program software, and the two organizations collaborated daily.

Media Collaboration
The media, including cable and broad­cast news, newspapers, and magazines, played a key role in NCMEC's reunification rate. While NCMEC has many state-of-the-art advantages for locating children, it does not equal the tremendous communications capacity of the major television networks. Partnering with CBS, CNN, and Court TV, broadcasts of NCMEC's missing children posters and the hotline number reached mil­lions of people across the United States. Other networks ran stories and pho­tographs. As John Walsh and TV's America's Most Wanted have demonstrated, there is no medium more powerful than television for disseminating information and asking for the public's help. The hard evidence in NCMEC experience is that the NCMEC Web site normally handles 1 million visits per day. The number of visits grew to 20 million per day and stayed there for weeks, largely because many people saw the Web address on television.

That huge jump in volume could have easily overloaded NCMEC's Web site capac­ity. In response, a longtime technology supporter gave NCMEC additional server technology and power upgrades to make sure it could handle the volume.

Lessons Learned
In a crisis, not everything works smoothly. The Katrina and Rita experience provided NCMEC with some key lessons about what to do differently next time. For starters, in the case of widespread destruc­tion and power outages, satellite phones are much more useful than cell phones. The experience also showed the potential value of setting up phone banks in shelters.

Taking over the NCMEC Training Cen­ter for the hotline worked for the short term, but it also forced the organization to consider the value of a multipurpose hot­line and call center facility that operates parallel to its standard hotline, 1-800-THE-LOST. This planned facility will become an integral part of NCMEC's daily operations.

Information exchange in crisis situations is vital to locating and reuniting families. A central reporting facility would have increased the speed with which inves­tigators could match data and find missing individuals. Developing memoranda of understanding to facilitate information ex­change among institutions such as NCMEC, state and federal agencies, and the American Red Cross will help all to be better prepared for the next crisis.

The People
Technology is, in the end, about peo­ple. People create it, use it, and benefit from it. People also troubleshoot and cre­ate off-the-cuff solutions for exceptional situations, or when technology breaks down. NCMEC employed and created some innovative technological solutions to help reunite fractured families in the wake of the storms.

But it would be wrong to imply that technology, with a few tweaks, did the lion's share of the work. NCMEC's case management staff, already tasked with a full load of cases before the storms, began working double duty. Project Alert representatives were on hand to staff the missing persons hotline. Other staff vol­unteered to answer phones or enter data into the database after they would al­ready put in a full day's work. Team Adam representatives were deployed to the Gulf Coast even before the flooding occurred and were living and working out of recreational vehicles because hotels and office space were not available. These are the people who made the soft­ware, computers, cameras, and Web sites function. Internet and wireless technolo­gy helped the hotline function; but whenever a hotline phone rang, it was answered by a human being.

The most dramatic advantage that technology provides in missing persons investigations is time; and time is criti­cally important when children are sepa­rated from their parents or guardians. NCMEC staff and volunteers gave time, too: hour upon hour of their own lives to reassure victims of the storm that someone was working on their behalf.



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 3, March 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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