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Students Look Into the Future of AI in Disaster Response

Students from upstate New York gathered this month at the University of Albany’s College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity to share visions of artificial intelligence in emergency response.

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Many are curious about the role of artificial intelligence in the future of emergency management response, and that was the impetus for a "sandpit" exercise at the University of Albany in New York this month, a competition among students to produce concepts for possible AI emergency response.

The event resulted from a partnership between the University of Albany’s College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity (CEHC), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

It began with two half-days of preparation where students or teams from New York state's Capitol Region gathered at the university to hear subject matter experts from such organizations as DHS, the New York State Department of Homeland Services and the New York State police discuss emergency response and AI. They talked about how much AI would change the field and what kinds of investment would be required.

The teams, comprising more than 70 students total, then returned for a day to present their ideas to a panel from DHS, which heard solutions like how to better understand information as it’s flowing to an EOC and a disaster detection system that would automate the response process, making it quicker.

“We’ve been working with PNNL for the last four or five years, pushing the edge of emergency management,” said Alex Greer, associate professor and department chair of the university's Department of Emergency Management, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity. “They wanted to understand what emergency management will look like in the future.”

One student who participated was Ayesha Islam, a first-year PhD student of information science. “My research interest is centered on the mitigation and recovery phase of disaster events,” Islam said in a statement on the school's website. “Navigating the mitigation and recovery needs for communities is often challenging in the post-disaster context. I assume AI might be able to address some of these limitations.”

The University’s CEHC has been producing students like Islam since it was created in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2016. The program offers undergraduate and post-graduate degrees and has been sending students to work as professionals in places such as the New York State Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. It has also sent some students to professional sports teams to work on planning for potential emergency events.

Many go to work after graduating and then come back to earn a post-graduate degree. “A lot are government jobs, but there are a lot of private contracting jobs with private companies as well,” Greer said.

The department uses internships to help students gain valuable experience.

“We have a lot of them go over to the New York State Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management,” said Eric Best, an assistant professor with CEHC and event coordinator, “as well as TSA, private industry and the FBI.”
Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management magazine.