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Self-Driving Cars for Mass Evacuations? Sensors in Every Corner of Every Building?

The tech is there in some cases, but emergency managers are slow adopters.

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Self-driving cars for mass evacuations? Well maybe not in the very near future, but it may be coming. There are other, more currently viable technologies though that are ready to help emergency managers and public safety officials with mitigation, response and recovery.

Virtual and augmented reality are very viable tools that could be used for mitigation, education, damage assessment and the like. Predictive analysis is an area with great growth potential for the emergency manager/public safety official. These could be helpful tools, if not critical ones, for mitigating floods and fires, as well as developing response and recovery plans.

“Some of what we talk about being emerging technology is just concept and it’s not there yet, but it’s coming,” said Sarah K. Miller of S.K. Miller Consulting. “But some of it, virtual reality or augmented reality, can provide a really great tool for education of the public, emergency managers, whoever. You can do simulations that put people in a disaster scenario.”

Take the risk of wildfire, like ones burning in Southern California right now. Many residents underestimate the risk of staying put when a wildfire is raging because they haven’t seen one up close. Virtual reality can help their perception of the risk and enable them to make a more informed decision about whether to or when to evacuate.

“We go, ‘Oh, wildfires, that’s really bad for the people at risk for wildfire.’ Seventy-five percent of people at risk say that, not comprehending that they are the people they are talking about, so you help them perceive that in ways that are interactive,” Miller said.

Virtual reality might also help people understand why its risky to live in a flood zone, and augmented reality could be useful in damage assessments. “Virtual reality would let you immerse people in that scenario,” Miller said. In other words, instead of showing someone that they are in a 100-year zone or a 500-year zone, virtual reality could show what such a flood would mean to the property.

“Overlaying a map [on an area or property] so that they can see where water goes. They can see it on their house or the facilities they manage,” she said. “It’s different from looking at it on paper.”

Predictive analysis is another focus that will have great impact on public safety and emergency management. “Predictive analysis is really morphing into artificial intelligence, machine learning sort of concepts,” Miller said. “We have so much data available that we don’t do anything with.”

She said earthquake modeling — what would happen to various structures in the event of an earthquake — and so forth is one use of predictive analysis. “You could take building data — retrofits, how old the building is, what improvements have been done — and put them into a database.

Artificial intelligence could tell us what a 6.0 earthquake would do to those buildings.
Along with the estimated damage, the data could demonstrate traffic flow during certain times of day, who’s at school and work, what resources would be needed and where.

Chris Tarantino, CEO of Epicenter Media & Training, sees a day when buildings will be replete with sensors monitoring everything. “Imagine a hospital or other building with sensors in every corner of every room monitoring structural stability, every window, how many heartbeats are in the building that recognize when something is not right.”

The technology is available but getting into the public safety-emergency management realm is a challenge for various reasons.

One is that emergency managers are a skeptical bunch, according to Tarantino. “I’m more of a technology adopter so I’m on the left side of the bell curve,” he said. “Emergency managers tend to be on the right-hand side of the curve, usually. They are in a group called the late majority or the laggards.”

He said that is because emergency managers tend to take the “what-if-it-breaks” angle and are concerned with risk. But there are dangers that come with the slow adoption, and not taking advantage of the data that’s available will mean not being able to make informed decisions.

But there are risks as well, like claims made by some in the market that they can predict an earthquake days in advance. Miller said those claims have not been scientifically proven and cause some of the other, proven advancements to come under question.

“I know that there are companies and people saying that they’re doing it, but I’m not seeing the proof,” she said. “It’s a dangerous claim, particularly coming from earthquake country. There are ethical and scientific questions about that claim. Ninety-nine percent of scientists would say it’s bunk.”

But Miller is enthusiastic about self-driving cars. “There are potential benefits in massive evacuation scenarios because they are more predictable than humans. We’re not anywhere near this yet, but the potential is fascinating.”