Monday, February 15, 2010

Communicating During Emergencies

Responding to a natural disaster is complicated by trying to deliver medical care in a chaotic environment where the communications infrastructure on the ground is seriously damaged or completely destroyed. Responding to emergency care has always been very difficult especially during Hurricane Katrina, the Southeast Asian Tsunami, and now with the earthquake in Haiti.

USAID is leading the U.S. government’s efforts in Haiti and working with the FCC to assess present communications needs, the Haitian government’s communications priorities, to assess the damage to key communications facilities. The FCC will evaluate any communication options that can be used to help restore services immediately resulting from the earthquake devastation.

FCC International Bureau Chief Mindel DelaTorre along with the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau Chief Engineer, William Lane, went to Haiti to review the destruction of the communication facilities. They met with 25 representatives of the telecommunications industry in Haiti, and conducted extensive talks with company managers, the wireless company TELCO, wireless carriers, and internet service providers.

In addition, to Chief DelaTorre and the PSHSB Chief Engineer, the team also included three staff members who were deployed to Haiti to support the FEMA Mobile Emergency Response Team, plus two FCC engineers, and two industry experts.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said, “The FCC team will continue to work with Conatel the communications agency in Haiti and local Haitian telecommunications providers to come up with practical and sound options for restoring communications services. FCC updates on the communication progress in Haiti is being provided at

The University of California San Diego researchers are also working diligently to find new ways to improve communications during times of disasters. The university has launched a project to find better ways for emergency officials and first responders to talk to each other and share data on the ground at a disaster site.

One of the problems is that disaster sites often have a noisy and chaotic electromagnetic environment that make wireless networks unreliable so researchers are looking for a way for first responders to continue their work even if their connection to a central server is down.

The second problem occurs when first responders arrive at disaster sites at staggered intervals and depending on the size of the disaster, emergency personnel can sometimes reach into the thousands. So the UCSD researchers are looking into a system that is interoperable and self-scaling and has the ability to increase capabilities as responders arrive at the scene.
The third problem is that the capabilities of computer systems in disaster environments can change from moment to moment based on connectivity and infrastructure so applications need to be designed to use information in a seamless way to enhance the work flow for emergency medical personnel.

Recently, $1.5 million was made available from stimulus funding to go to the National Library of Medicine (NLM) to underwrite their WIISARD SAGE project. The new project will pick up where the original Wireless Internet Information System for Medical Response in Disasters (WIISARD) left off and will look at collaborative computing in mobile environments as well as examine self-scaling systems for disaster management.

The WIISARD SAGE project will bring together an interdisciplinary team of faculty from computer science, cognitive science, electrical engineering, and emergency medicine in the UCSD Division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) to find better computing for emergency personnel to use at disaster sites.

The UCSD researchers are going to test their solutions with emergency response agencies during large scale disaster drills to be held in San Diego County in mid May 2010. The drills will be federally funded under the San Diego Regional Metropolitan Medical Strike Team (MMST) and will be composed of fire departments, hazmat personnel, bomb squads, and S.W.A.T. teams. In addition to MMST, the UCSD team will also participate in drills organized by California’s Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT).

To get ready for the May disaster drill, UCSD recently pre tested some of their new ideas that includes mobile phones equipped with custom software, Bluetooth barcode scanners to allow responders to scan a patient’s paper triage tag to bring up their on-site medical record, RFID technology to help track where responders are located, and development of new network protocols such as “Grapevine”, a gossip based protocol that allows communication even if not all network connections are functioning.

In addition, WIISARD SAGE will also add GPS units to the nodes of the ad hoc CalMesh network developed at Calit2 to estimate the positions of responders or disaster victims by triangulating signal strengths.