July | August 2017

New Technologies Aiding States’ Disaster Response

by Shannon Riess
Today, access to computers and technology is practically a given. With the majority of Americans using smartphones, computers or tablets on a daily basis, it is almost unimaginable to live life in an unplugged world. Even though it is difficult to think of disengagement from technology in recent years, this unplugged world was the reality of many State Emergency Operations Centers, or SEOCs, as little as a few years ago.
Although the introduction of technology in an EOC may be recent for some states, the advancement and investment in specialized emergency management programming and software is not entirely a new concept. Emergency management agencies across the United States have become more reliant upon technically advanced systems and programs, which have heightened the ways state emergency managers are able to prepare for, respond to, recover from and mitigate against the effects of disasters.
Information is key whenever a disaster strikes. Lack of information could be detrimental to populations, neighborhoods and local economies. Many of the technological advances in the field of emergency management have been developed in order to solve the information problem and increase situational awareness. Data allows emergency managers to create a common operating picture that can help the state to predict and mitigate against the impacts of disasters, identify at-risk populations and respond to those areas in need, and recover from the effects of a disaster when a threat has passed. Information systems and emergency management specific software have led states to carry out their missions faster, better and more cost efficiently.
Creating a common operating picture used to be a challenging feat. By the time data was collected, analyzed and pieced together, the picture had changed and was therefore invalid. The need for constant updating could only be addressed by a technological solution, which is why Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, have become a staple in many state EOCs. GIS has the ability to spatially integrate data sets, such as weather, demography, topography and utilities. These combined datasets allow the emergency managers to create a real-time picture or map of an incident or disaster.
Many states use mapping software such as the ArcGIS™ system, an Esri software product, as a platform for their state’s incident tracking capabilities. This software is generally combined with integrated emergency management software applications that have the ability to coordinate and track missions, resources and personnel while streamlining information between responding agencies, departments and first responders.
The state of Florida, for instance, was able to use ArcGIS™ as a platform to create GATOR, the Geospatial Assessment Tool for Operations and Response. This application was a critical asset during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Florida’s Division of Emergency Management was able to use GATOR to track the movement of water within the Gulf of Mexico in order to follow and understand the oils trajectory. Thousands of reconnaissance photos were logged into GATOR daily, which aided in response efforts by providing Florida’s emergency management team with a clear common operating picture and a wider understanding of the issue at hand. Once a response mission was tasked, the emergency managers were able to track the responding vessels and task forces that were deployed.
Hazard-specific decision support software systems have been created to serve as planning and modeling tools that demonstrate to state emergency management personnel what a specific hazard would look like if it occurred in a certain region. States conduct exercises using these programs, which help to estimate potential losses, generate evacuation routes and improve mitigation efforts that protect the state when these threats are genuine. Software such as the Hurricane Evacuation program, or HURREVAC, may even be able to show a state how other states in a region would be affected by a hurricane, which can spur the creation of mutual aid agreements and can serve states in response and recovery when a disaster does occur in the future.
Looking toward the future of technology in emergency management there are many recently developed systems, such as unmanned aircraft systems and ‘smart’ flood detection technology, which are new to emergency managers and the public alike. While these systems are innovative, they are also unfamiliar to a state’s emergency managers and residents, many of whom may be resistant to adopt such novel technology. In order to be successful, states will need to effectively manage social behaviors and attitudes about technology in order to implement viable new systems.
One program that could have a profound effect for emergency managers at the state level would be the implementation of a statewide alert and notification system that would send emergency voice and text alerts to cell phones in a geographical area that is deemed at risk of an emergency or disaster. Many universities employ this method for their alert and notification systems, which has been salient for the safety and security of students during emergency situations such as active shoot scenarios and armed robberies, but on a much smaller scale than state agencies.
Currently, states are not held accountable for alert and notification, but rather counties and local governments are charged with notifying the public during disasters. This can prove problematic for some counties that do not have public alerting systems. Additionally, those counties that do have systems in place must maintain those systems with their own funds. Many alerts do not reach their intended audiences as some methods of alert require residents to be doing a certain activity at a certain time, such as listening to the radio or watching the news on television. A comprehensive statewide alert and notification system that allows counties to send out alerts to mobile phones in an area would provide uniformity for notification systems throughout a state, increase public awareness and reduce expenses statewide.
The true future of emergency management at the state level lies in the ability of states to support and aid in the growth of local and county emergency management. A uniform and supportive statewide emergency management network that embraces our changing world and proven technologies will ensure that a state’s residents, visitors and businesses remain informed and protected during an emergency or disaster.

About the Author

Shannon Riess is currently a continuity of operations intern at the Florida Division of Emergency Management and a student at Florida State University. This summer she will be interning with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and hopes to find a permanent career in the field of emergency management after graduation.