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AI Is the Next Tech Evolution for Emergency Management

With a bit of tech history for the progress we've made.

The plane is finishing boarding and I'm cranking this out quick before they close the door. See below for my April International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Bulletin Disaster Zone Column

Artificial Intelligence: The Next Big Tech Revolution

There have been two huge revolutions in technology that have had a broad impact on people, business and government. Those are the introduction of the Internet and then more recently the adoption of social media as a tool for all types of engagement. The next revolution is knocking at our door now, and that is artificial intelligence (AI).

The first revolution in technology was the use of the internet. It started pretty slowly. Where I saw emergency management pick up on the use of it was the establishment of agency webpages. At first these were very static in nature. Primarily a “Home Page” that shared the mission of the organization and some basic facts about what emergency management was about. And then, it grew and grew. The agency webpage became the place where you started putting all your information. Starting with staff and contact numbers and email. Public education became a major component of webpages since it gave a convenient place to put materials on how to prepare your family. As the federal government became more active in using webpages you could link to all their information on your own website.

Today, an agency’s website is where you go for everything. Planning documents that do not contain sensitive information are placed there in the form of PDF files. We have abandoned printing documents and mailing them to our partner organizations. If they want a hard copy, they can print it. Training announcements, conference agenda’s registrations for all manner of events are there on the website. While I’ve only covered one aspect of how the internet is used by emergency management today, it is also our “window to the world.” If we need information on any topic…we just search for it. Job seekers today have the world at their fingertips. They can find out all about a company or agency without ever cracking a book or going to the library to look an entity up in Dun & Bradstreet. Yes, that is what we had to do in the bad old days.

The next revolution that has touched every aspect of our lives and our profession is the use of social media. I just checked my Twitter profile for when I started using that social media tool. That was back in 2008. If you want to get a snapshot of what is going on during a disaster, search Twitter and Facebook. There you can get information on what is happening. Some postings are firsthand accounts that come with pictures or videos. These are invaluable for getting some semblance of what is occurring in a community when calamity strikes. However, the above use of social media remains somewhat rare. Typically, the use of social media is confined to pushing information out. Both during normal operations and then also during disasters. Twitter has pretty much replaced the formal news release for current and ongoing actions. Events are moving too quickly to be able to wait to assemble information in a news release and then push it out. In today’s world that is “old news.”

Still I have to say that our use of social media can be expanded for how it is employed today. Many times, jurisdictions have restricted the use of social media to “official use” by trained public information officers. This was true of the internet back at the time of its inception. I think we are missing a great opportunity to use the tool, due to fear that someone will make a very public mistake. Some expansion of the use of social media is warranted to go beyond public information officers.

Then today we are on the cusp of the next technological revolution, that being the use of artificial intelligence (AI). There has been much ballyhoo about ChatGPT and what it can do in the form of writing information based on general guidance that is given to it on the topic. While it is a boon to high school and college students writing papers, the use of it will expand greatly as the tools become more sophisticated. I tried it out on my Disaster Zone blog and had it write a summary of the role of emergency managers in snow disasters, check out A Blog Post on Winter Weather and Emergency Managers--That AI Wrote It was generic, but pretty much on point, with no specifics.

However, the above is only the beginning. We used to think of AI as being robots that perform repetitive tasks. Now robots have brains and can think. Should we be afraid of the future and robots/AI replacing us and what we do—yes, we are going to have to evolve. For instance, you can instruct a computer program today to paint a picture using the style of a particular artist. And—it can do that. What do you think the artist who is being “impersonated” by a computer thinks about that? Again, going back to my archives there is another “old” eight years ago video that highlights the coming revolution in AI technology, watch this YouTube video Humans Need Not Apply I made my grandsons watch that back then, since it will be their generation (they are 19 & 22 now) and their future work lives impacted by it.

AI is going to help us issue warnings much faster than we can do today. AI won’t hesitate, it won’t forget which button to push. Yes, there is danger in that process, but I’m telling you, AI is coming, it is coming faster than you think and it is going to show up in the programs that you use every day as it gets incorporated into our technology. My number one goal for AI will be in a major disaster to sort through the hundreds of messages, phone calls, emails, radio calls and pull out the significant events. Then take those and display them on a map and have them blink red so I can see what and where something is happening—that is significant. That will be cool!


Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.