Technology to the RESCUE
California program works with first responders, communities to find ways for science to improve disaster responses
A well-planned and coordinated response to disasters and emergencies can minimize injuries and prevent the loss of life. Responding to these disasters in a timely and effective manner is crucial, but in order to successfully respond to a crisis, first responders and local government officials need to process a flood of information and communications so they can make sound decisions quickly.
The Responding to Crises and Unexpected Events (RESCUE) project is working to transform how communities and first responders plan for and respond to both natural and man-made disasters by turning new technologies and cutting-edge research into practical tools for emergency planners and responders.
Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), RESCUE's goal is to dramatically improve the ability of emergency responders to gather, process, and disseminate information with each other and the general public. Led by the University of California, Irvine, RESCUE brings together researchers from around the country who work in a variety of academic fields that bring a unique perspective to understanding disaster responses.
Social scientists, for example, have an understanding of the communication challenges disaster responders face when trying to interact with each other and the public. Experts in information technology are skilled at building complex information systems, data networks and other systems that can help decision makers in an emergency. Engineers can provide a detailed analysis of a disaster's impact on transportation systems and other physical infrastructure. By bringing experts from these various disciplines together with first responders and community leaders, RESCUE is able to bring the best ideas and technologies from academic research and make them available to the people who need them most.
Sharad Mehrotra, a professor at the University of California, Irvine and the director of RESCUE, cites improving crisis communication as an example of how this multidisciplinary approach allows the project to provide better solutions to first responders. "Looked at from an IT perspective purely, the problem is essentially of message delivery through multiple communication channels," Mehrotra said. "But the 'real' issue is not the delivery of messages but rather generating an appropriate response."
To meet this challenge, the scientists provided risk communication models and insight into how humans perceive and react to risk communications. Engineers helped the team understand how tools like early warning systems could impact evacuation routes and other concerns. The result has been new approaches to risk communication that are being put into practice.
"The multidisciplinary alliance allowed us to explore the problem of risk communication holistically instead of simply as a technology problem," Mehrotra said.
According to professor Ramesh Rao, director of the University of California, San Diego division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, including first responders has greatly improved the quality of the products that RESCUE has produced. One example is a backpack that provides a satellite-enabled wireless network in a disaster area. RESCUE worked on its design with the people who would actually use the device in a disaster. The result is a product that is easy to use and is compatible with most wireless devices, so no additional special equipment is needed.
This collaborative approach is typical with RESCUE, explained Rao. "Responders like it because they dictate the user interface and functionality--they get to design it, instead of having it imposed on them."
Another tool being developed by RESCUE researchers is a complex disaster simulation platform called MetaSim. This computer system allows researchers to merge different types of simulations at once in order to both provide planners with a more accurate picture of what conditions may be like during and after a disaster. It also provides researchers with a way to test and validate how new technology concepts could help a response effort.
RESCUE has participated in several emergency preparedness drills with local responders to analyze how effective the potential response is and to find ways their expertise can help emergency personnel. These drills and exercises have already produced useful new tools and insights that will be put into place in the event of a disaster.
Still, despite four years of constant work, with the diverse nature of potential disasters and the complexity of large-scale emergency responses, Rao believes there is still a great deal of work ahead for the project.
"We have really just scratched the surface," Rao said.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.
Useful NSF Web Sites: