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As Hurricane Season Peaks, Gov Tech Firms Push Innovations

So far, the U.S. tropical storm season has been undramatic, but that could soon change. Many emergency response agencies have upgraded their tech, but they still need better mobile and digital tools to weather storms.

A hurricane as seen from space.
As of mid-August, New Orleans has enjoyed a summer free of tropical storms — good news for an area where blue tarps still cover roofs damaged by last year’s Hurricane Ida.

But as the historical peak of the hurricane season approaches, Tyrell Morris, executive director of the Orleans Parish Communication District — the organization that handles emergency communications for the city — took stock of what had changed since Ida blasted through the region.

He can point to new redundancies and fiber to protect against 911 outages, a cloud-based phone system for agency employees, an IP-based call router network and a “cell tower on wheels” for first responders.

As well, the communications district has adopted Rave Mobile’s Smart911 technology, which can supply to police, firefighters and EMTs detailed information about residents such as their disabilities and medical needs and even the number of pets in their homes.

“It gives us information about (specific resident) needs during an emergency,” he told Government Technology.

He noted that hurricanes are only the first part of an emergency — power outages combined with severe heat and humidity can make the days or weeks after a major storm more painful than the storm itself. The information in those Smart911 profiles allows emergency personnel to target and communicate with people most at risk during those dangerous times.


Around the country, emergency dispatch centers and first responders are enjoying new and updated gear, just as Morris is. Public safety is a huge driver of the gov tech industry, with hurricane response and preparation among the main engines.

“The market for public safety tech for any hurricane response is massive, but the public safety industry is historically known for being reactive and it sometimes takes an unfortunate event for agencies to get the funding they need to upgrade systems and response plans,” Erin Bunner, vice president of product for public safety and justice at tech firm CentralSquare, told Government Technology via an email interview. “Despite technology solutions like CAD-to-CAD and 911 available for agencies, financing modern solutions is where state and local agencies often fall short.”


Even so, signs of innovation for hurricane preparation and response are everywhere — innovation that can also prove useful, of course, for other disasters such as wildfires.

AT&T, for instance, is equipping disaster-zone drones with 5G network capabilities, according to CNET, which said that the move marks “an improvement that’s expected to increase the chances your phone can send a text message or download evacuation plans when conventional mobile networks collapse.”

Meanwhile, university researchers in Florida are working on better methods of predicting where the most severe “road-clogging debris” will end up after tropical storms, according to a recent blog post about the work, which involves satellite images.

The goal is to give first responders more data related to storm management — for instance, by helping them better plan where to position trucks and debris collection zones before a storm.

At the national level, a fact sheet from the Department of Homeland Security goes deeper into the weeds of hurricane technology and touts such items as “a storm surge explorer for viewing both planning and operational storm surge flood risk data,” and “open-source geospatial data sharing services to maximize the available data sources, and minimize the overhead of integrating new data.”


For many small, local emergency management operations, that might seem a bit out of their league.

But the general move toward upgrading emergency dispatch and response systems for this digital and mobile age also will pay dividends when it comes to hurricane response, at least according to Todd Miller, senior vice president of strategic programs at Rave Mobile Safety.

He said the company’s Smart911 tool is gaining a national footprint and is already in use in Chicago and other larger population centers, as well as smaller cities. The idea behind that tool — and a main idea behind other emergency dispatch modernization — is to break data, dispatch and responses from what he called “these unnatural silos.”

That also means an emphasis on targeted, more precise emergency responses — what Morris, in New Orleans, was talking about.

“With more information we can leverage these resources more effectively so you don’t have to send in the cavalry all the time,” Miller said. “It’s about adjusting resources. More information is better as long we can control the flow of it and leverage it.”


Interoperability also is key as residents and officials prepare for whatever might emerge from the tropics in the coming weeks. That was one of the main points made by Bunner, from CentralSquare.

Specifically, Bunner pointed out the importance of agencies having a “CAD-to-CAD interoperability solution (to allow) cross-jurisdictional collaboration by connecting CAD systems through a common portal.” That enables the transfer of operations to another agency or emergency dispatch center should a storm take out communications in one area.

Bunner also pointed to increasing demand not only for CAD-to-CAD tools but also Next-Generation 911 call-handling systems. Remote call-taking technology also can be useful, allowing officials to use laptops to handle emergency requests and other calls.

Of course, wish lists don’t always come true, and that’s the case for hurricane preparation and response and the demand for the latest technology, especially for smaller agencies. But there are also ways around those types of challenges.

“For agencies to expand their public safety technology and natural disaster response plans, they should take advantage of various grant funding opportunities,” Bunner said. “Over $600 billion in national grants are available annually to public safety agencies and local governments.”
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in Wisconsin.