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When disaster strikes

Sirens blare and lights flash—an ordinary day turns suddenly dangerous. Whether it’s an earthquake, tornado, or something more man-made, every community is vulnerable to an emergency situation that puts lives and property at risk. While human support is always the most important, new technology is helping first responders get the job done.

Seeing inside a hurricane

Hurricanes are big—really big. A Category 5 storm can be over 300 miles wide and move up to 200 miles per hour. When a hurricane is swirling off the coast of a populous area, it can be hard to narrow down just where it’s going to strike—and how hard.

<strong>Hurricanes can suddenly intensify</strong> just before landfall. Sending drones deep into the eye to collect data may improve real-time predictions. Courtesy NASA/NOAA GOES Project. But that’s exactly what scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have to do. It’s their job to not only understand what is happening inside a storm, but also predict how it’s going to behave.

For example, a computer model of Hurricane Michael in 2018 accurately predicted its path, but missed a rapid intensification of wind speeds just before landfall. Speed at landfall is one of the most crucial pieces of information for emergency managers because it determines which groups of people should be evacuated.

But the factors that determine whether a storm will rapidly intensify as it nears land are many and varied—such as wind direction, pools of cool air, dry air, and wind shear. Which is why scientists are turning to specialized drones to collect information from deep inside the storm. The information drones collect can be sent back in real time for improving just-in-time forecasts—and incorporated into future computer models.

Another way for NOAA scientists to get more information about what’s taking place in the storm’s most dangerous part is to borrow Doppler lidar from the US Department of Defense. Mounted on a P-3 aircraft which can fly right through the core of a hurricane, lidar can measure wind motion and record data about wind speeds.

These methods may not show huge breakthroughs in any one storm, but researchers hope they will continue to improve forecast accuracy over the long term. And we’re going to need it—studies indicate that hurricane intensification is happening more often due to climate change.

Traffic cameras to arrest floods

When rain falls hard and fast in an urban area, runoff can overwhelm the storm water drainage system and flood roads and intersections in heavy traffic areas. 

<strong>Pointing traffic cameras</strong> at curbs instead of cars improves flooding predictions when combined with image-processing algorithms and computer models. Courtesy State Farm. <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en'>(CC BY 2.0)</a>Unlike river flooding, which can be monitored by placing water gauges in a few critical areas, urban flooding is trickier to predict. And thanks to climate changes that mean fiercer storms and heavier rainfall, urban flooding is becoming more intense.

That’s why scientists at Arizona State University are developing the FloodAware system to provide better predictions. This three-year project will collect data from traffic cameras that are pointed at an intersection’s curbs and gutters instead of cars.

Image processing algorithms will estimate the depth of the water shown in footage of each location. Then scientists will combine those estimated measurements with hydraulic models of storm water systems to generate more accurate information about specific areas.

The combination of new data and existing models will also allow them to project where flooding is likely to occur—even in areas where they don’t have cameras. Eventually, the research team hopes to link the system to a phone app that could alert residents in real time about what streets and intersections to avoid.

A smarter way to respond to mass shootings

Not all disasters are natural. As we know from the news, another serious threat to public safety is an active shooter in a public place. In 2019 alone, there have been at least 21 deadly mass shootings in the US. According to the FBI, there are now active shooter situations occurring almost every two weeks.

Video analytics uses AI to identify and track an individual across multiple cameras and could be helpful in the event of a mass shooting. However, others warn that wide use of smart video surveillance is a serious threat to privacy. Courtesy ACLU.

Voters and lawmakers have been unable to decide if stricter gun laws are likely to stem the tide of violence, so some organizations are taking protection into their own hands through the use of artificially intelligent video surveillance.

These AI-systems can recognize an individual’s mannerisms, gate, and clothing and track them across multiple cameras, stitching together a timeline of locations and movements. The companies that supply these systems are already working on enhancements that can detect weapons and analyze facial expressions for violent intent.

School systems in the US are the biggest customers for intelligent video, but systems have also been installed in shopping malls, sports stadiums, private companies, and even places of worship. The police force of Hartford, CT, monitors over 500 cameras in the city, some of them equipped with real-time video analytics.

Supporters of the technology say it can reduce the number of casualties and provide first responders with accurate information but others are concerned about the threat to privacy. The technology has also been shown to support or strengthen racial bias—for example, black faces are more likely to be classified as ‘angry’.

Emergency communication

When a tornado or other disaster hits a populated area, cell phone service is often wiped out. Along with preventing people from checking on loved ones, the outage also impacts first responders, impairing critical communications.

<strong>Panacea’s Cloud</strong> helps emergency responders communicate critical information in the absence of cell phone and internet service. Courtesy FEMA. A new device created in a collaboration between the University of Missouri’s College of Engineering and College of Medicine can help. Called Panacea’s Cloud, this crushproof, waterproof device can set up a temporary communications network covering the range of one to two city blocks. It can also be expanded via multiple devices to create a larger regional communication network.

The tool provides wireless internet, phone network, and internet-based data storage and processing to all first responders operating in a disaster area, regardless of their organization. Other devices, such as smart eyewear and virtual beacons, can be integrated with the system.

A recent trial conducted with FEMA’s Missouri Task Force 1, showed that search-and-rescue operation information-sharing was three times faster using Panacea’s Cloud over current GPS-based devices.

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