When the going gets tough, hams get going

Reprinted from Urgent Communcations at http://urgentcomm.com/disaster-response/when-going-gets-tough-hams-get-going

When the going gets tough, hams get going

Mar. 19, 2013
Merrill Douglas | Urgent Communications

A handheld radio, portable antennas, extra batteries and cables, a soldering iron, clean clothes, snack bars and a length of rope.

That’s some of what you’ll find in a “go-bag.” And if you’re one of the many amateur-radio operators who volunteer during local emergencies, you always keep a go-bag packed. When disaster strikes, you grab it and rush to a Red Cross shelter, an emergency operations center (EOC) or some other activity hub to do what you do best — get messages through, despite all sorts of obstacles.

They don’t often get a lot of publicity, but amateur-radio operators — or “hams” — play an important role in emergency response.

“They’re a prime example of a grassroots effort,” said Keith Robertory, manager of disaster response emergency communications at the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C. “They live where the disaster occurs, and they already have the equipment, the knowledge of the location and knowledge of how the disaster would impact that location. So they’re immediately there and can start doing work.”

Hams often swing into action well before a storm or other event causes havoc on the ground. During hurricane season in the Caribbean, for instance, hams in that region keep their eyes on the weather out their windows, said David Sumner, chief executive officer (CEO) of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) in Newington, Conn. They use their radios to call in observations to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

As the storm passes, it might knock out power and damage antennas, “so they rig another antenna, start up the generator, and they’re back in business,” Sumner said

When hurricanes, blizzards, ice storms, earthquakes, tornadoes or other forces of nature cause widespread damage, hams get to work wherever they’re needed. In some cases, they transmit messages to take the place of two-way radio or phone systems that have been rendered inoperable in the aftermath of a disaster.

For instance, as Superstorm Sandy overwhelmed parts of the northeastern U.S. last October, some hams assisted regional hospital systems that had lost the ability to communicate among their buildings, Robertory said.

“Somebody would go to them and say, ‘We need this message passed to this building,'” he said. “They would get on the radio, call the amateur-radio operator in that other building, and give them the message.” The second operator then carried the message to the recipient.

Amateur-radio operators also help individuals contact family members, help the Red Cross conduct damage assessments and help get shelters established, Robertory said. For instance, people in a shelter might want to register on the Red Cross’s “Safe and Well” system to let family and friends know that they’re okay, but the shelter might not have power or Internet access at the time.

“An amateur-radio operator can call an amateur-radio operator somewhere else who has Internet access and relay information to put into a missing-persons database,” Robertory said.

Even when other networks are operating, ham operators take some of the load off those communications systems when traffic gets heavy.

Quick response

In the aftermath of Sandy, volunteers with the Greater Bridgeport Amateur Radio Club in Connecticut handled messages for three evacuation centers housing about 800 local residents.

“They were ready to take calls and dispatch people,” said Dana Borgman, press information officer for Region 2 of Connecticut Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), a volunteer organization. “The messages could be about supplies, logistics — any kind of reports.”

Public-safety communications networks in Bridgeport were operating at the time, Borgman said. Ham radios supplemented those channels. But, if the phone system in a shelter stopped working, hams could step into the void.

“If someone in a shelter needed to make a request, they could call someone at a different point, such as the EOC,” Borgman said. “They’d establish communication and say, ‘I have a request from the shelter manager. We need 200 cots and more fresh water.'” An operator at the other end would relay the request to the appropriate person.

Members of ARRL’s New York City-Long Island section provided similar aid after Sandy. At the time, Jim Mezey — now manager of that section — held the emergency coordinator’s post. Because he lives in Nassau County on Long Island, he focused most of his attention there.

“I did a lot of traveling,” he said. “I was without power for a while, so I used my mobile station to do most of my work. I also moved to the county EOC and worked with the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services (RACES)” — another volunteer group. For the most part, however, section members provided services to the Red Cross.

Finding enough manpower during the emergency became a bit tricky, because many of the radio volunteers from Long Island live on the hard-hit South Shore, Mezey said.

“They had their own problems with floods and losing power,” he said. “Their batteries lasted only so long, and that was it. No gasoline, no way to get around.”

Of course, for volunteers whose homes were flooded, taking care of their own families took top priority, he said.

Amateur clubs can swing into action quickly because they maintain ongoing partnerships with myriad emergency-response organizations. The ARRL has developed memoranda of understanding with 13 national organizations, such as the American Red Cross, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), the Salvation Army and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Many operators also take advantage of training opportunities.

“A lot of the amateur-radio operators are now becoming CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) members,” said Borgman. “Also, we encourage our members to take all of the ICS (Incident Command System) training.”

ICS training teaches operators about the structure of incident command and how to use standard terminology, rather than terms specific to police, firefighters, radio operators or other specialists.

Beyond delivering messages, hams offer a lot of miscellaneous technical assistance, some of which is quite ingenious, Robertory said.

“They like to ‘MacGyver’ things,” he said. “You’ll hear a lot of amateur-radio people say, ‘Give me a car battery, an antenna and a radio and I can communicate from anywhere.'”

In times of disaster, hams tend to be extremely flexible, Robertory said.

“In the morning, they’ll set up an antenna and start communicating,” he said. “They’ll set up a satellite dish for us, and then they’ll set up a computer. They’ll troubleshoot a printer, and then they’ll teach someone how to use the fax machine.”

Clearly, when the going gets tough, it’s great to have someone on hand with a go-bag, a radio — and the attitude of a ham.

The disaster life-cycle and gun violence

I can’t believe the NRA’s video statement.  It really wasn’t a press conference; they didn’t engage or interact with the reporters.  The NRA leadership just spoke.  Twitter was rolling during the conference with immediate feedback on the conference.  The general sense of the comments made the NRA seem out of touch.  Their crisis communication team did such a poor job, they should all be fired.

A comment I heard later made some sense of it.  The NRA wasn’t talking to the general public.  They were talking to their core membership.  While I think the selection of the medium was incorrect, the message delivered should have resonated with the intended audience.  The broad reach of their selected medium had the consequence of broadening the divide in the debate instead of bringing the sides closer together.  Strategic forethought or unexpected consequence has yet to be determined.

The news today reported that two fire fighters were shot and killed responding to a house fire.  Horrific.  People responding to help others, yet shot for no reason.  I’m sure the NRA’s reaction is to suggest arming the fire fighters with guns when responding to a house fire.  Any normal person will realize that ammo and fire do not mix.

I had a realization.  The NRA’s push for more guns in qualified and trained hands isn’t consistent with the disaster cycle.  If we draw a parallel and consider the full spectrum of fire prevention, there are actions to take in each of the disaster phases.  Fire safety education, code enforcement and other efforts overlap to build a culture of prevention.

Imagine for a minute if our response to fires was to make more fire fighters.  More apparatus.  More fire extinguishers.  More wet stuff on the red stuff.  No building codes.  No children education.  No mitigation actions.  Hard to imagine, isn’t it?  The culture of fire prevention is so engrained in our society that it seems natural.  Despite how obvious it seems, we still beat the drum for fire prevention in our communities because we know it is the safest most cost effective method and we’re not 100% fire safe.

Fire prevention occurs throughout the entire disaster life cycle.

The NRA’s response seems to be stuck in the response phase.  The phrase: the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.  That is so short sighted.  The NRA is not looking at preparedness or mitigation actions that would have prevented the ‘bad guy with a gun’ in the first place.  That’s like saying: the only thing that stops a bad fire is a good guy with water.  It just isn’t true.  We could take action to stop the fire from starting in the first place.

A culture shift to reduce violence, particularly violence with weapons, will take a lot of work.  Emergency managers need to look at it with the perspective of the entire disaster life cycle.  Our experience with mitigation, preparedness and prevention is a vital perspective to include in this national debate.  Yet it is only one valid input.  There are so many other ideas that need to be brought to bear on the problem.

Let us hope that sensible solutions are not caught up in politics.

Let me add I am a gun owner and I used to be an NRA member for their educational services.  I believe that reasonable people can make a reasonable decision once the extremes viewpoints on both sides are called for what they are.

Historic Information Breakdowns

Risk managers study causes of tragedies to identify control measures in order to prevent future tragedies.  “There are no new ways to get in trouble, but many new ways to stay out of trouble.” — Gordon Graham

Nearly every After Action Report (AAR) that I’ve read has cited a breakdown in communications.  The right information didn’t get the right place at the right time.  After hearing Gordon Graham at the IAEM convention , I recognized that the failures stretch back beyond just communications.  Gordon sets forth 10 families of risk that can all be figured out ahead of an incident and used to prevent or mitigate the incident.  These categories of risk make sense to me and seemed to resonate with the rest of the audience too.

Here are a few common areas of breakdowns:

Standards: Did building codes exist?  Were they the right codes?  Were they enforced?  Were system backups and COOP testing done according to the standard?

Predict: Did the models provide accurate information?  Were public warnings based on these models?

External influences: How was the media, public and social media managed?  Did add positively or negatively to the response?

Command and politics: Does the government structure help or hurt?  Was Incident Command System used?  Was the situational awareness completed?  Was information shared effectively?

Tactical: How was information shared to and from the first responders and front line workers?  Did these workers suffer from information overload?


“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  — George Santayana

I add that in since few people actually know the source and accurately quote it.  Experience is a great teacher.  Most importantly, remembering the past helps shape the future in the right direction.

Below are a list of significant disasters that altered the direction of Emergency Management.  Think about what should be remembered for each of these incidents, and then how these events would have unfolded with today’s technology – including the internet and social media.

Seveso, Italy (1976).  An industrial accident in a small chemical manufacturing plant.  It resulted in the highest known exposure to 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) in residential population.  The local community was unaware of the risk.  It was a week before public notification of the release and another week before evacuations.

Bhopal Methyl Isocyanate Release (1984).  An industrial accident that released 40 tones of MIC.  There was no public warning.  The exact mixture of the gas was not shared so the first responders did not know how to treat the public.

Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster (1986).  An explosion at the plant and subsequent radioactive contamination of the surrounding geographic area. Large parts of Europe and even North America were contaminated.  The Communistiic regime hid the initial information and did not share information until another country detected it.

Hurricane Hugo (1989).  At the time, this was the costliest hurricane disaster.  There was an insufficient damage assessment that lead to wrong resource allocation.  The survivors in rural communities were not located and responded to for many days.  Much of the response was dependent on manual systems.

Loma Prieta (1989).  A M7 earthquake that injured around 3800 in 15 seconds.  Extensive damage also occurred in San Francisco’s Marina District, where many expensive homes built on filled ground collapsed and / or caught fire. Beside that major roads and bridges were damaged.  The initial response focused on areas covered by the media.  Responding agencies had incompatible software and couldn’t share information.

Exxon Valdex (1989).  The American oil tanker Exxon Valdez clashed with the Bligh Reef, causing a major oil leakage.  The tanker did not turn rapidly enough at one point, causing the collision with the reef hours. This caused an oil spill of between 41,000 and 132,000 square meters, polluting 1900 km of coastline.  Mobilization of response was slow due to “paper resources” that never existed in reality.  The computer systems in various agencies were incompatible and there was no baseline data for comparison.

Hurricane Andrew (1993).  Andrew was the first named storm and only major hurricane of the otherwise inactive 1992 Atlantic hurricane season. Hurricane Andrew was the final and third most powerful of three Category 5 hurricanes to make landfall in the United States during the 20th century, after the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 and Hurricane Camille in 1969.  The initial response was slowed due to poor damage assessment and incompatible systems.

Northridge Earthquake (1994).  This M6.7 earthquake lasted 20 seconds.  Major damage occurred to 11 area hospitals.  The damage made FEMA unable to assess the damage prior to distributing assistance.  Seventy-two deaths were attributed to the earthquake, with over 9,000 injured. In addition, the earthquake caused an estimated $20 billion in damage, making it one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.

Izmit, Turkey Earthquake (1999).  This M7.6 earthquake struck in the overnight hours and lasted 37 seconds.  It killed around 17,000 people and left half a million people homeless.  The Mayor did not receive a damage report until 34 hours after the earthquake.  Some 70 percent of buildings in Turkey are unlicensed, meaning they did not get approval on their building code.  In this situation, the governmental unit that established the codes was separate from the unit that enforced the codes.  The politics between the two units caused the codes to not be enforced.

Sept 11 attacks (2001).  The numerous intelligence failures and response challenges during these three events are well documented.

Florida hurricanes (2004).  The season was notable as one of the deadliest and most costly Atlantic hurricane seasons on record in the last decade, with at least 3,132 deaths and roughly $50 billion (2004 US dollars) in damage. The most notable storms for the season were the five named storms that made landfall in the U.S. state of Florida, three of them with at least 115 mph (185 km/h) sustained winds: Tropical Storms Bonnie, Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne. This is the only time in recorded history that four hurricanes affected Florida.

Indian Ocean Tsunami (2004). With a magnitude of between 9.1 and 9.3, it is the second largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph. This earthquake had the longest duration of faulting ever observed, between 8.3 and 10 minutes. It caused the entire planet to vibrate as much as 1 cm (0.4 inches) and triggered other earthquakes as far away as Alaska.  There were no warning systems in the Indian Ocean compounded by an inability to communicate with the population at risk.

Hurricane Katrina and Rita (2005).  At least 1,836 people lost their lives in the actual hurricane and in the subsequent floods, making it the deadliest U.S. hurricane since the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane.  There were many evacuation failures due to inadequate considerations of the demographic.  Massive communication failures occurred with no alternatives considered.


Additional resources


Data, data everywhere; and not a bit to eat

Data sets

Data sets are packages of information that you can use before, during or after a disaster.  It is important in planning to determine who has what data, if you can get access to it, and if it is compatible with your systems.

The following are common data sets that provide baseline data, or information that is available prior to any events occurring.  These are useful for planning purposes and exercises.

  • Baseline data: Topography; Political boundaries; Demography; Land ownership / use, Critical facilities
  • Scientific Data: Hydrography / hydrology; Soils; Geology; Seismology
  • Engineering and Environmental Data: Control structures: locks, dams, levees; Building inventories/codes; Transportation, bridges, tunnels; Utility infrastructure, pipelines, power lines; Water quality; Hazardous sites; Critical facilities
  • Economic Data
  • Census Data

Other data sets are only available during a response.  Some data sets are specific to the incident.  These are usually dynamic and depend heavily on solid damage assessment and data exchange agreements.

  • Critical infrastructure status: Road and bridge closures; Airport status; Utility status – water / electricity / gas / telephone
  • Secondary hazards: Condition of dams and levees; Fires and toxic release potential
  • Resource Information: Personnel deployment; Equipment deployment
  • Medical system condition: Hospital status; Nursing home status
  • Casualty information: Injuries and deaths; Medical evacuations; Location of trapped persons; Evacuation routes; Shelters

Keep in mind that not everyone uses data for the same purpose.  Many do a damage assessment and this data is all called “damage assessment”, but it not useful to each other due to different needs and standards.  Some examples include:

  • FEMA looks a major infrastructure and systems, and overall impact.
  • SBA looks at impact to businesses.
  • USACE looks at impact to locks, dams, and their projects.
  • Red Cross looks at impact to individuals and families.
  • Insurance companies look at impact to policy holders.

Most of the data sets include a geographic location, such as an address, road, or other positioning information.  This helps transform the data set from just existing in a database to being analyzed through a GIS tool.  More on that in the GIS section.


A database is a location that stores data.  There can be simple databases, and very complex databases.  Remember that we’re looking at this from the perspective of an emergency manager.  You should be familiar with the terms and some other basic information, but leave the complex database creation to the SMEs.

Here are a few terms that are used in database discussions:

  • Database – an organized collection of data
  • Table – data organized in rows and columns
  • Attribute or field – a variable or item, think of a cell in a spreadsheet
  • Record – a collection of attributes
  • Domain – the range of values an attribute may have
  • Key – unique data used to identify records
  • Index – organize and order records
  • Data dictionary & schema – documentation of connections between all the parts

Quick Tip: never buy or accept a database from someone without a properly documented data dictionary and schema.  Having that will save you hassle in the future when you need support or to change it.

A database can either store all the data in a single table, or spread the data across multiple tables.  Remember that large amounts of data are best handled in a multi-table database, but this also creates the problems of trying to share data as all the data must be linked back.  It shouldn’t be a problem in a properly designed and documented database.

A single table database is like keeping data in Microsoft Excel.  It is simple to create all the rows and columns on one sheet.  Lots of data points and duplicate data points may be better organized in a multi-table database.  Key fields are used to link records across many tables.  Tables can be a one to one (1:1) relationship.  For example, if one table contained your personal information and another table contained your transcript that would be a one to one relationship.  Tables can be a one to many (1:many) relationship.  A table of course descriptions may link by class name to everyone’s individual grades.  Once course taken by many people.  The course description could be updated once without needing to touch every record of all the people that took it.  If you want to dive deeper, start at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Database_model.


Meta data

Meta data is a way of providing information about data, or anything else really.  Metadata makes data retrieval and understand much easier.  It also makes data gathering more complicated and difficult since there is more work required on the data gathering side.  In my experience, everyone agrees that good metadata is good.

Like everything else, garbage in = garbage out.

http://www.clientdatastandard.org/dcds/schema/1.0 is an example of data and metadata in capturing.  Each field is described as to the use and what it contains.

Another way to look at meta data.  The nutrition facts is meta data for the banana.  The banana is meta data for the information listed in the nutrition facts.

An image of a bananaBanana nutrition label


Next: Data standards

Additional resources:

Cyber-security and disasters

More and more systems are being connected to share information, and IP networks provide a very cost-effective solution.  One physical network can be used to connect many different devices.  The water company can use a computer interface to control the water pumps and valves at treatment plants and throughout the distribution system.  The natural gas and electric providers can do the same.  Hospitals connect medical devices throughout the facility to central monitoring stations.  A few people in one room can watch all the ICU patients.  Fire departments, law enforcement and EMS can use a wireless network to communication, dispatch units, provide navigation, and track vehicle telematics to manage maintenance cycles.

All networks do not need to lead to the internet, however this is rare and needs to be specifically designed into the system when it is being designed.  Having a physically separate system does provide the best security if all the data is being kept internal to that network.  Remember that internal-only networks are still subject to security issues from internal threats.

Any network or device that does have an internet connection is subject to external attacks through that connection.  A malicious hacker can break into the water treatment system and change the valves to contaminate drinking water.  They could open all the gates on a dam flooding downstream communities.  They could reroute electrical paths to overload circuits or such down other areas.  They could change the programming so dispatchers are sending the farthest unit instead of the nearest, or create false dispatch instructions.

Cyber attacks can disable systems but they can also create real-world disasters.  First responders are trained to consider secondary-devices during intentionally started emergencies.  What if that secondary-device is a cyber attack, or a cyber attack precedes a real event?  During the September 2001 attacks in New York City, a secondary effect of the plane hitting the tower was the crippling of the first responder’s radio system.  Imagine if a cyber attack was coordinate with the plane’s impact.  The attackers could turn all traffic lights to green which could cause traffic accidents at nearly all intersection.  This would snarl traffic and prevent the first responders from getting to the towers.

A side step on the use of the term hacker.  A hacker is anyone that hacks together a technical or electronics solution in an uncommon way.  I explain it as “MacGyver’ing” a solution.  There is no positive or negative connotation in the term used that way.  Hacker also describes a person that breaks into computer systems by bypassing security.  A more accurate description is calling them a cracker, like a safe cracker.  This type of hacker is divided into criminals (black hats) and ethical hackers (white hats).  Ethical hackers are people who test computer security by attempting to break into systems.

By now, you’re probably aware of the Anonymous hacker group.  They have been collectively getting more organized and increasing in actions that drive toward internet freedom since 2008.  Often they’re called “hacktivists” meaning they hack to protest.  There are many more malicious hackers out there with different agendas: status, economic, political, religious … any reason people might disagree could be a reason for a hacker.

Somewhere on the internet is a team of highly trained cyber ninjas that are constantly probing devices for openings.  They use a combination of attack forms including social engineering (phishing) attacks.  Automated tools probe IP addresses in a methodically efficient manner.  The brute force method is used to test common passwords on accounts across many logins.  Worms and Trojans are sent out to gather information and get behind defenses.  Any found weaknesses will be exploited.

Pew Internet reports that 79% of adults have access to the internet and two-thirds of American adults have broadband internet in their home.  The lower cost of computers and internet access has dramatically increase the number of Americans online.  The stand-alone computer connected to the internet has forced the home user to have the role of the system administrator, software analyst, hardware engineer, and information security specialist.  The must be prepared to stop the dynamic onslaught of cyber ninjas, yet are only armed with the tools pre-loaded on the computer or off-the-shelf security software.

Organizations are in a better and worse position.  The enterprise network can afford full-time professionals to ensure the software is updated, the security measures meet the emerging threats, and professional resources to share information with peers.  Enterprise networks are also a larger target; especially to increase the online reputation of a hacker.

On Disasters

During a disaster, there will be many hastily formed networks.  The nature of rushed work increases the number of errors and loopholes in technical systems.

During the Haiti Earthquake response, malware and viruses were common across the shared NGO networks.  The lack of security software on all of the laptops created major problems.  Some organizations purchased laptops and brought them on-scene without any preloaded security software.  Other organizations hadn’t used their response computers in over a year, so no recent security patches to the operating systems or updates to the anti-virus software was done.  USB sticks move data from computer to computer, bypassing any network-level protections.  The spread of malware and viruses across the networked caused problems and delays.

There are a number of key factors when designing a technology system that will be used in response that differ from traditional IT installations.  One of the most important considerations is a way for the system to be installed in a consistent manner by people with minimal technical skills.  Pre-configuration will ensure that the equipment is used efficiently and in the most secure manner.


Additional Resources

Autonomous systems and robotics

An autonomous system is a system with a trigger that causes an action without the involvement of a person.  Two well known examples are tsunami buoys and earthquake sensors.  These continuously monitor a series of sensors.  When the sensors register a reading that exceeds a predefined threshold (the trigger), a signal is sent to a computer to generate warning alerts (the action).  These systems can range from the very simple to the extremely complex.

One could argue that the backup sensors on cars are an autonomous system: the trigger is the driver shifting into reverse, the computer turns on the back up lights, activates the camera, turns on the internal screen, and activates the sensors to start beeping.  I think it is a bit of a stretch but it does provide a simple example.

The other side of this spectrum is the Mars Rovers.  Due to the time delay in communications between Earth and Mars, the rover cannot be directly controlled.  NASA gives a general command for the rover to head to a new destination.  The rover acts independently to drive over the terrain, and makes decisions to avoid obstacles.  On-board the rover is the Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS) software — part of Onboard Autonomous Science Investigation System (OASIS) —to automatically analyze and prioritize science targets.  This allows more work to be done without human intervention.

Somewhere between the two is the Roomba.  This autonomous vacuum moves around the house cleaning up.  It will learn the layout of a room to be more effective in future runs.  When complete, it docks to recharge.  At a set time interval, it does this again.  Now don’t laugh about the Roomba; it is a very commonly hacked robot for people interested in DIY robotics.  Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio software has built in modules specific to controlling the Roomba.  That gives mobility and a way to control it.  Microsoft has released additional modules for the Robotics software which adapts the Kinect sensor to sense the environment.  This addition provides vastly better sensors over the traditional range-finder and light sensors.  Microsoft isn’t the only player in this market; Lego Mindstorms markets robotics as a toy for children ages eight and up.  Robotics isn’t just for engineering students in high-end tech universities.

There is enough technology in existence today to make huge leaps in the use of robotics.  The main challenge of robotics is the acceptance by the general public.

Watch the videos about the DARPA autonomous car, Urban Search and Rescue robots, BigDog robotic transport and Eythor Beder’s demonstration of human exoskeletons.  Combine these and we can vision some major transformations.

Take the computational guts from the autonomous car and put them into a fire engine.  Now the fire engine can be dispatched and navigate to a fire scene independently.  Once on-scene, sensors can detect the heat from the fires – even if they are in the walls and not visible to the human eye.  Robots from the fire engine can be sent into the structure.  Heavier duty robots can pull hoses and start to extinguish the fire.  Other robots can perform a search on the house to assist survivors out, and rescue those unable to escape.  Communication systems will link together all the sensors on the robots to generate a complete common operating picture that all robots use in decision making.

A similar thing can be done with an ambulance.  Focus just on the stretcher.  Imagine if the stretcher would automatically exit the ambulance and follow the medic with all the necessary equipment.  The stretcher could be equipped to up and down steep stairs, make tight turns and remain stable.  Automating the lifting and bending done by EMS workers handling patients on stretchers would reduce the number of back injuries caused by improper lifting.  This would keep more EMS workers in better health which reduces the sick leave and employee compensation claims.

Robotics in search and rescue could be the one thing that saves the most number of lives, both in the victims and the rescuers.  A building collapses and the SAR team responds.  On the scene, the workers setup specialized radio antennas at different points around the building site.  They release dozens, if not hundreds, of spider or snake like robots.  Each robot has the ability to autonomously move through the rubble.  They are light enough to not disturb as a human would do.  They are numerous enough to more quickly cover the building as a human would do.  The combined sensor data of their location and scans would quickly build a three dimensional model of the rubble.  They are location aware of each other so they don’t bunch up in one area or miss another.  Heat, sound and motion sensors could detect people.  Once this initial scan is done, the SAR team will be able to know where the survivors are and communicate with them through the robots.  The team will evaluate the 3D model for the best entry paths to get to and rescue the survivors.  If the situation is unstable, larger robots can be used ahead of the team to provide additional structural support to reduce the risk of collapse.  If a robot can’t communicate with the antennas outside, the robots can do mesh networking to pass information along.

Emergency resource identification and planning

An emergency manager needs to identify the resources that will be used in the community when an incident exceeds the daily norm.  There are many places to find resources that may be used in a disaster, but during a disaster is not the time to be seeking these resources and sharing business cards for the first time.

This does assume that the fire department, law enforcement, and emergency medical system are properly staffed to handle the majority of daily emergencies that occur in a community.  If there are not enough resources to handle the day-to-day events, then there is a much bigger problem for the community.

There are attempts to capture the information about the nation’s critical infrastructure into an open system so the data can be shared with authorized users yet secured so it doesn’t reveal too much information to those who don’t need to know it.  These systems can also feed real-time operational data in a way that shares a common operational picture of what is occurring.  One of these efforts is Virtual USA.  More information can be found at http://www.firstresponder.gov/pages/virtualusa.aspx.  Another effort to share information in a less formal way is through the First Responder Communities of Practice, found at https://communities.firstresponder.gov.

A commonly shared statement is that the private industry owns most of the resources and critical infrastructure that can be used or damaged during a disaster.  I believe it is a mistake to always tap the private industry with an expectation they provide their products and services free because it is a disaster.  Private industry needs to pay for their resources and their business model may not include giving away free stuff.  How important is a service during a disaster if someone says “well, if we can get the resource free then we’ll do it, but otherwise no”?  Only doing something because it is free shows that it isn’t as important as something you are willing to pay for.

The resources available in a community will greatly vary with the type of community.  An urban community will have less wild land firefighting gear then a rural counterpart, but is likely to have taller ladder trucks and better equipped for high-rise rescues.  Examples of how community need drives first responder resource can continue.  Fuel pipelines and storage tanks push the need for foam pumpers, but are becoming more common outside of industrial plants.  Large off-road areas push for special law enforcement vehicles to patrol those areas.  Large elderly and special needs populations push for more or differently equipment ambulances.

A common mistake is to look for FEMA for all the needed disaster response support.  While FEMA does own some assets, FEMA functions as a mechanism to gain access to assets located in other parts of Federal and state government.  FEMA uses mission assignments to request support from other agencies with an IOU that FEMA will reimburse the costs association with the mission assignment.  Any government agency can bring their assets to support a disaster relief operation, but only through a mission assignment will FEMA pay for them to be there.  As an emergency manager, you need to look out and identify these resources that may exist in your community.

A military installation in the community may become a valuable partner in disaster response because it increases the goodwill between the community and the base plus allows the base a way to support their members who live and work off the base.  On the flip side, military resources may not be available if the commander (or higher) determines that dedicating the resources to the response will weaken their level of readiness too much.

Look around your community.  Hopefully you will start to notice a relationship between the assets of the first responders (and their support teams) and the equipment, training and resources available for use during events.  The Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) grants (http://www.fema.gov/government/grant/hsgp/#2) may have allowed your community to purchase equipment for major incident response.

An emergency manager should be engaging with the community before a disaster to get to know the people and organizations in the area.  The entry into the private sector may be through the local Chamber of Commerce, or even the business directory of the Better Business Bureau.  Providing information to help the community’s residents and businesses be prepared in advance of a disaster will also help the emergency manager make contacts that may be used during the disaster.

There are public-private partnerships that successfully exist in technology.  The most common one that emergency responders may see is the National Communication System which arose from the telecommunications industry and Federal government working together.  Through NCS, emergency responders can get priority access to landline and cellular phone systems, priority restoration of telecommunications systems and shared access to HF radio frequencies.  The companies engaged in this are listed at http://www.ncs.gov/ncc/gov_ind.html.

When a local or state response agency has significant communications problems, FEMA can be approved to provide assets to support them.  One of FEMA’s internal assets is the Mobile Emergency Response Support (http://www.fema.gov/emergency/mers/index.shtm).  They’re role is to provide communication support to the disaster responding agencies; not to the general public.

This is a really good time to bring up the important part that when requesting assistance from someone, be very clear who is being directly helped and served.  When engaging a resource, provide them as much information as possible so they can plan ahead for the situation.


Additional resources