In May 2016, massive wildfires in Alberta lead to a mandatory evacuation of Fort McMurray and surrounding communities. The Canadian Red Cross responded to the disaster, and — thanks to the unprecedented generosity of Canadians and matching support from the federal and provincial governments — was in a unique position to assist evacuees across the country, in what would become (to our knowledge) the largest single-day cash transfer in humanitarian history.

Immediately after the evacuation, the Canadian Red Cross launched an emergency appeal to raise funds and began to assist evacuees. Within the next 72 hours, an online portal opened which allowed evacuees to register online, an effective service used by more than 20,000 households per day at its peak. Ultimately, there were 13 call centres and one data centre tracking urgent needs and assessing field inquiries by phone and email.

The mapping system showed that 24.2% of registrants had evacuated outside the province, proving the response to be a nation-wide effort. The Canadian Red Cross innovated by exploring new ways to assist affected communities not only in Alberta but throughout the whole country. To tackle this challenge, the Red Cross began using registration data to facilitate electronic fund transfers (EFTs) to registered individuals and families.

“People affected by these fires left their homes with almost nothing, with no idea of when they’d be able to return home, or if they’d even had a home to return to. We listened to their needs and developed a plan for immediate assistance based on what we heard in the early days following the disaster.”

Jean-Philippe Tizi

Vice-President of Emergency Management, Canadian Red Cross

While EFTs provided an efficient means to issue funds across the country allowing individuals and families to purchase what was unique to their own personal situations, they also resulted in challenges which have shown the Red Cross how there is a need to innovate further. This innovation is now a finalist in the Google.org Impact Challenge Canada. Vote now to help the Canadian Red Cross win $750,000 to enhance this new approach. 

 

In future responses, there is a need for a more adaptable registration system. One which will:

  • Allow clients to access and modify their personal information after it has been submitted, including location changes, contact information, correct input errors, or changes in a family itself;
  • Be inclusive with users who might experience a barrier to accessing the system, such as language, technology, internet connection, etc.

Develop an adaptable system which can meet complex needs. This will mean shorter wait times and lead people to a single channel when looking for information and updates.

A constant throughout this response is the need for communication and information.  There was a demonstrated need for around-the-clock staffing, including surge support from volunteers and staff.

  • Affected individuals reached out for updates about their case files across several channels, including email, call centres, in-person visits to Red Cross locations, and social media.
  • Social media became a necessary point of contact for evacuees.
  • Ultimately digital channels played a role beyond registration and inquiries, but also for conducting tele-casework.

Collecting data within the registration not only allowed the Red Cross to provide financial support to individuals through electronic fund transfers but also had the perks of:

  • Enabling outbound communications through e-mail, SMS and phone,
  • Mapping clients to identify where to target service delivery and the ability to direct clients towards their nearest Red Cross office,
  • Conducting a re-entry survey, collecting invaluable information about people’s plans to go back to their communities, transportation needs, housing needs, registered losses and vulnerability indicators.

Today, the Red Cross is still helping the impacted people of Fort McMurray. In fact, more than $178 million has already been spent on affected individuals and families, community groups and small businesses. The work will continue for months and years to come.

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