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3 Emerging Technologies That Will Impact Emergency Management

New technologies could positively impact all phases of emergency management.

Albert Einstein once said: “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” Who can argue with that, especially when it comes to technology? Imagining how technology can fill a void is necessary when it comes to conceiving a new device or system. Perhaps nowhere is there an example of the importance of emerging technology as there is in emergency management. Thousands of people can be impacted by a man-made or natural disaster within seconds, and the availability of tools that can help not only before but also during the response to the devastation can save lives and time.

Emergency Management
sought out emerging technologies that will positively impact the field and possibly change how people think tech fits into preparedness, response and recovery.

1. SimulationDeck

Within the last couple of years, social media has become go-to communication tools that the public uses to obtain information. But one of the issues for emergency managers is how an agency can test how it would use social media in an emergency. Tweeting and issuing updates on Facebook — even when preceded and followed by the words “test” or “drill” — would likely confuse people and possibly start rumors, which can be impossible to stop once the incorrect information starts to spread. But emergency management consulting firm Nusura Inc. is seeking to provide a way for agencies to test their social media and public outreach practices through the use of its training tool SimulationDeck.

The secure Web portal replicates online communication tools, including popular social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as agency websites and blogs. Nusura President Jim Chesnutt is using his experiences from being a public information officer — including with FEMA as a deputy public affairs officer for Region VIII — to help people train on disseminating timely, accurate and coordinated public information during emergencies.


Photo courtesy of Nusura

After participating in numerous exercises, Chesnutt observed a pattern: “In the after-action reports for almost every major exercise I worked on, they said that the public information function was not being tested in a realistic way. And it’s true.” The pressure created by mock media and those tasked with testing the public information element didn’t compare to the reality of handling even a small emergency, he added.

Nusura — which is composed of former public information officers from all levels of government — created SimulationDeck to mimic what happens online and in the media during an emergency. The Web portal has nine websites: SimulationBook includes Facebook’s core features; Bleater simulates Twitter; blogging platform Frogger; YouTube lookalike EweTube; agency news; incident information; Exercise Times Daily, a Web-based newspaper that features live reader comments; SimDeck News, a Web-based TV station; and KEXN Radio.

SimulationDeck doesn’t require special software, so it can work on any platform or Internet-connected device. Chesnutt said one person working in the simulation cell during an exercise could act as 10 people. For example, he or she could file a newspaper article, then post on the agency’s website and then act at the governor’s press secretary and announce a surprise press conference. “Things happen instantly, and any simulation player can generate an enormous number of injects, as fast as they can type and hit enter,” he said.

Although the tool hasn’t been on the market for very long, it was used during Vibrant Response 13, a U.S. Army North national-level field training exercise that had about 9,000 service members and civilians from the military, as well as federal and state agencies. Don Manuszewski, chief of public affairs for U.S. Army North, said it’s important to practice all forms of communication and that includes social media as it becomes increasingly popular. “Social media is becoming kind of a way that a large section of the population gets and sends out information, so if we’re not training to understand how it affects us and where it’s going, then we’re doing a disservice to those we’re trying to help,” he said. “We need to make sure we understand the entire information environment from the traditional media to the media that people are using now like social media.”

U.S. Army North incorporated social media into previous exercises to varying levels of success. For example, U.S. Army North used milBook, a professional networking site similar to Facebook that was developed by the U.S. Defense Department, during training but it didn’t quite work because the organization was trying to adapt it to meet its needs, instead of vice versa.

Using SimulationDeck during Vibrant Response 13 felt more real than previous attempts at incorporating social media during an exercise, Manuszewski said. “It met our needs much better than anything that we have used in the past.” After the exercise, they worked with Nusura on some features that could improve it. For example, Manuszewski said people on the microblogging site couldn’t track a trending topic. The workaround was to create a page and name it with the topic that staff wanted to track in place of being able to utilize a search feature.

Nusura’s Chesnutt said updates have been made based on user feedback and SimulationDeck also evolves to reflect real-world changes. “It is organic and ever changing just like the Internet,” he said.

2. Intellistreets

What if lampposts could detect rising floodwaters and even display the evacuation route to help citizens and visitors safely leave an area? That is what Ron Harwood is trying to do with Intellistreets, an emerging technology that outfits streetlight poles with wireless technology to provide emergency alerting, homeland security and public safety functions as well as energy conservation.

“The system was invented as a response to the chaos created at street level during 9/11,” said Harwood, president of Intellistreets. The company can retrofit existing streetlights if a community isn’t ready to purchase brand-new, high-tech poles, and while the features vary depending on an area’s needs, they can include: emergency alerts, digital signage, hazardous environment alerts, two-way audio, vehicle impact detection and a pedestrian counter.


Image courtesy of Intellistreets

At its heart, the technology consists of a dual radio mesh wireless system that has embedded microprocessors, which Harwood said allow for information gathering, such as analysis of what a streetlight is hearing, seeing, smelling, etc., a method known as edge processing. “The advantage is that first responders get real information interpreted into English or graphics that comes right from the site instead of analytics that happen through backhaul technology and processors,” he said.

Accessed via a Web-based system, operators and first responders can receive an alert when an environmental factor triggers the system. Because the technology is built into each streetlight, the government representative can take action from a remote location to make pedestrians aware of a situation. Harwood gave the example of outfitting streetlight poles with water sensors. In an area that has flooding or water main issues, a streetlight with the built-in intelligence would activate a warning light when water reaches a certain depth like being detected above the curb. Other streetlights in the area that have the technology would begin to flash, warning traffic to slow down.

Intellistreets’ audio features also increase public safety in a two-way fashion. Emergency blue light buttons allow people to signal for help, and speakers provide a way for government officials to make announcements or issue emergency alerts. Digital signs can display standard information, such as civic announcements, and then be updated with crucial information like an evacuation route when necessary. The system features built-in signage and announcements for standard situations that allow a public safety representative to click a button on the Web-based system to start audio alerts or change what’s being featured on the digital signs. Harwood’s goal is to have an iPad in each patrol vehicle so officers can easily update the messaging when needed.

The technology is not widespread yet, but is being used at Sony Pictures in Culver City, Calif., where the digital signs provide departure routes during the movie lot’s weekly evacuation exercise.

Additionally, a demonstration of Intellistreets was installed in Farmington Hills, Mich., last year. Although the local government isn’t using the system’s high-tech tools, its officials think the features would be beneficial. “I think the potential for them is huge,” said City Manager Steve Brock. “We haven’t used much of the technology that I think is available with regard to messaging, signage and things like that. But when we went through the demonstration of them, when they sort of christened them, if you will, I was very impressed with their capabilities and what it could mean in all sorts of environments.”

3. iDAWG

During a worst-case emergency scenario, communication between responders is both necessary and difficult. Much research and effort has gone into interoperable communications, including at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies where a device is being developed that will maintain communication between different devices without relying on cell towers or Internet networks.

The iDAWG — Intelligent Deployable Augmented Wireless Gateway — works with a new class of software, called edgeware, that connects devices and information and helps with machine-to-machine communication. Professor Lee McKnight said the process is similar to ad-hoc networking in which a local network is built spontaneously as devices connect to one another. McKnight explained that when a user connects to a wireless network during everyday life, he or she doesn’t connect computer to computer because of increased security risks. Following a disaster, however, it could be one way of communicating and connecting with others. According to a university paper, iDAWG is an “infrastructureless wireless network based on a cognitive radio-based field deployable unit with information sharing/communication capabilities.”


Click on the image to see a larger size. Image courtesy of Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies.

The paper stated that: “The iDAWG is designed to securely capture and share multiple wireless transmission media including police, fire, EMS, municipal, private, cellular and CB bands by acting as a signal repeater to provide or extend service on scene.”

Joe Treglia, assistant director of the university’s Wireless Grid Innovation Testbed, said technologies for interoperability in data and communications like iDAWG and edgeware are significant for communication between traditional and nontraditional responders during an emergency.

The School of Information Studies’ students and professors are working with public safety and emergency management representatives to understand their needs. They observed a multiagency exercise in August and have demonstrated some of iDAWG’s capabilities to a local 911 call center and an immigrant relocation group.

“The involvement of university researchers with practitioners and the public is a fairly new collaborative arrangement that brings new broader insights to the issues and creates actual solutions for incorporating this new way of operating and managing crises,” Treglia said.

In addition to iDAWG’s core components, Syracuse University researchers are working with the Rochester Institute of Technology’s low-flying plane that captured imagery of the destruction from real-world events like the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010. Developed by the Information Products Lab for Emergency Response, the plane could continue to deliver the images to incident commanders through iDAWG even in the event that cell towers and the Internet are down. “The iDAWG is designed to be capable of receiving and then relaying these kinds of emergency field images,” McKnight said.

The iDAWG is also going to be able to work with FEMA’s Integrated Public Alerts and Warning System. The research is receiving funding from the National Science Foundation Partnerships for Innovation Program and includes Virginia Tech, Syracuse University and the Rochester Institute of Technology.