Preparedness & Recovery

Disaster Response Tool Would Identify Chemical Agents, Set Emergency Response in Motion

University researchers’ project could go live at the end of the year, giving Chattanooga, Tenn., a built-in disaster response system.

by / January 14, 2013

In 2002, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga was asked by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to undertake a project that involved the release of a chemical or biological agent and determine if there was a way to detect where the agent was going.

The DOD soon got its answer and went its own way, but the university continued on with the project as an academic research topic for graduate students. But that’s changing with a current pilot project that university researchers hope develops, by the end of the year, into a real-time decision support tool.

Not only would the tool identify a chemical or biological agent, but would also notify officials of its location, nature and where it was going. The tool — with sensors to detect and report the substance, detailed GIS information and an intelligent traffic system involving 700 traffic monitors — would give emergency management and first responder personnel the critical information they would need to evacuate residents, redirect traffic and otherwise mitigate the presence of the agent.

Henry McDonald of the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga and SimCenter Enterprises is piloting a disaster mitigation system. Photo courtesy of SimCenter Enterprises Inc. and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

During the pilot, researchers are running computerized scenarios that include the release of a chemical or biological agent, with a goal of getting emergency responders the information they need to respond in real time.

During a real incident, the sensors would immediately identify the agent and report it to an emergency operations center. There the data would be meshed with weather and traffic conditions for decision-making.

There is still considerable work to be done to get to the deployment stage, including how to update information in the system in real time during an incident, according to Henry McDonald, chair of excellence in computational engineering at the university.

“To take it from a planning tool to a real-time decision support tool requires a lot of work, and we are embarking on that now,” McDonald said. He said the key is to figure out how to update the system in real time, “because nothing is going to go according to plan during an emergency.”

McDonald said Chattanooga is ideal for such a system because of its extensive fiber network. He said more than 100,000 homes are wired with smart electric meters.

After the pilot, the National Science Foundation will decide if it will continue to support the project. The foundation, along with U.S. Ignite and other local philanthropic organizations have pumped about $1.5 million into the project. The university could also offer the system to metropolitan communities, installing it on their hardware and maintaining it.

Jim McKay Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at