Technology's Role in Disaster Mitigation

Electronic medical records, all-hazards alarms and smart airplanes all have a role in disaster preparedness.

by / May 22, 2009

Lt. Gen. Russel Honore believes that the key to mitigating the effect of disasters lies in being prepared for them. As the commander of Joint Task Force Katrina responsible for coordinating military relief efforts across areas of the Gulf Coast impacted by Hurricane Katrina, Honore faced many challenges that could have been made considerably easier if people had been prepared with the help of technology.

Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,800 people. In contrast, Hurricane Ike killed fewer than 30 people, Honore told the audience at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Stakeholders East 2009 Conference in Washington, D.C., last week. That's largely because people were warned and evacuated ahead of time.

Following Hurricane Katrina, treating patients who were evacuated from New Orleans was tremendously difficult because medical personnel didn't know what medications they were taking and their medical records weren't available.

"There are some science and technology opportunities there," he said. One of them has to do with sharing electronic medical records and sending records with patients on CDs or thumb drives. "When they arrive at the next station [without medical records] they are costing the United States government an enormous amount of money, because now we have to go in and do blood tests to try to figure out what's wrong with all these elderly patients," he said. Later adding, "This didn't just happen during Hurricane Katrina. It also happened during Hurricane Ike last year."

That is something that needs to be fixed, he said, because the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act gets in the way of sharing medical records during disasters. And while that's largely a policy issue there are also opportunities for technology to be part of the solution. Possible solutions include the public carrying identification cards securely encoded with their DNA, blood type and other basic medical information. Another solution might be wearing a bracelet or necklace that contained that information, so medical personnel could better do their jobs and save lives.

Another challenge officials face during disasters has to do with people tracking. During Katrina children were evacuated via medical helicopters and aircraft carriers and rescued from the tops of houses and had to be separated from their parents. Later, reuniting those children with their parents took as long as 30 days. Smart cards, bracelets and necklaces would speed up that process.

Smart airplanes equipped with computers that alerted flight attendants of ill passengers could go a long way too. "How do you make a computer, put it on an airplane and tell the pilot that before he lands at Dulles [International Airport] that the person sitting in F22 has a fever?" Honore said. "The plane lands and you also see three people on both sides of this person have a fever now. That wasn't the case when they took off on this 14-hour flight. The plane lands and the flight assistants come out and they take something that looks like a ballpoint pen that you all have developed, put it in their mouth and if yours comes out green, you get off the plane. If it's red, you stay on the plane with the dude sitting in F22."

The fact that pathogens must be flown to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for analysis during an outbreak, such as the recent episode with swine flu, scares Honore. "That technology needs to be in every hospital in America, because if we don't that flu, that virus, that pandemic could move at the speed of an airplane," he said.

Why don't we have a standard alarm that alerts people to disasters in the middle of the night, Honore asked. What would happen if every rental property was required to be equipped with an alarm that told residents they had a half hour to get out

of harm's way?

And the policy vehicles exist to mandate these changes, but it's going to take more than policy. It's going to take industry seeing the silver lining in preparedness and dedicating its resources to the problem. It's going to take clever marketing and peer pressure.

He was talking to a major defense contractor recently, who was waiting for the army to order another tank, and suggested taking that company's scientists and investing in technologies that make people safer in their homes. "Right now all of our technology has been focused so that DHS, state and local government can talk, get early warning. Think about developing technology so everybody can have it in their home."

Technology can play a vital role in establishing a culture of preparedness. "We've got to up the size of that science and technology page in America and it may have to come out of a cultural shift where we put science and technology and innovation at the same level we've got sports, or maybe just a little bit bigger than sports," he said.