Todd Wasserman

Sep 25th 2018

Emergency Response Technology Improves as Disasters Get Worse


Natural disasters are causing more damage than ever in the past: in 2017, the U.S. experienced 16 “billion-dollar” natural disasters — events causing at least $1 billion in damages — tied with 2011 for the record. On the positive side, in the last decade or so, there have been dramatic improvements in emergency response technology aimed at improving our ability to respond.

Better real-time communications using command-and-control, drones and mobile apps and integrating social media have helped to reduce the damage of such disasters and aid emergency preparedness. Downloading FEMA’s mobile app and inputting your Medical ID on a smartphone can help save lives during an emergency. Robots can also perform search and rescue missions too dangerous for humans.

Northrop Grumman’s CAD2CAD, which connects emergency response computer-aid dispatch systems (CADs) to each other, also connects the IT systems of disparate rescue operations. These emergency response technology innovations are happening on the national and state levels, as well as in the private sector.

Improving Disaster Communications

Nathan Daniels, program manager and chief engineer of public safety programs at Northrop Grumman, said one of the major frustrations of disaster recovery efforts is lack of interoperability. In early August, he noted that wildfires were still occurring in California, with 16 states and two foreign countries sending rescue workers. But “all of those agencies have different IT systems, different radio systems, different ways of doing business,” said Daniels.

As Daniels explained, a CAD system is the brains of any emergency response operation. In the field, CAD can offer intelligence about what kind of resources are available — ranging from ladders in fire trucks to hydraulic rescue tools (the so-called Jaws of Life) to critical medical supplies such as Narcan. A CAD system can also offer info on who is in vehicles in the field and what kind of skills they have. The California Department of Forestry is one of the first entities to use CAD2CAD on a large scale and is continuing to expand its use across the state.

The other, newer form of disaster communication is social media. In recent disasters, citizens have used Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp to give and receive information. Public agencies also use these channels for real-time geography-based information to administer aid — helping workers identify neighborhoods where people are trapped, for instance. Similarly, when phones jammed after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, many New Yorkers used the New York Fire Department’s Twitter feed to communicate with rescue coordinators, Daniels said. Of course, that analysis needs to include some data scrubbing, which is why FEMA uses what it calls “Rumor Control” to weed out false information on Twitter.

Drones and Robots in Emergency Response Efforts

Another notable upgrade to disaster response is the introduction of robots and drones. Both the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue and its Roboticists Without Borders organization promote the use of land-based robots for rescue.

According to Daniels, robots can be mission critical for instances like the Fukushima disaster in Japan when a nuclear power plant released radioactive material. In that case, robots could go where humans wouldn’t. Similarly, NASA’s Global Hawk provided support in the wake of the disaster. The unmanned aircraft captured more than 3,000 images that helped emergency responders monitor radiation levels, assess supply routes and damage to infrastructure, and support evacuations and search and rescue efforts.

As for drones, Daniels said that being able to track fires in real time is very important for emergency preparedness, “particularly when they can do things the human eye can’t,” like use infrared vision to see where a fire is spreading.

Legal concerns have been holding up the wider use of drones, Daniels said, but policies and standards bodies are beginning to form to increase adoption and capabilities. Looking forward, big data, AI and machine learning will offer new tools to help us respond to and recover from these disasters.

Emergency response technology is just one area of innovation we pursue at Northrop Grumman.  Check out our career opportunities.