Integrating Technology Into Emergency Management

July 25th, 2017 by CHHS RAs

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By CHHS Extern Mark Cather

Within the emergency management structure of the United States, emergency preparation and response is typically driven at the local level.  State and federal resources can be requested to augment local resources, but local emergency responders and public officials are the first responders to an incident and the only source of local area knowledge.  Local emergency resources have traditionally evolved through lessons learned from past disasters; and historically, the most common emergencies have been related to floods, fires, diseases, and other forms of natural disaster.  This has led communities to develop their emergency response leadership, staffing, and resources around local police, fire, and health departments.  While this structure has served communities well in the past, this traditional structure is ill equipped to deal with the modern technological risks that we will face in the coming years.  In order to be prepared for future technical emergencies, our schools and communities need to develop people, tools, and techniques that integrate deep technical knowledge with an understanding of the existing emergency response structures that have served our communities for decades.  

 

Technology is infiltrating every facet of our communities and lives.  Devices, software, and sensors are being integrated into society to automate things like our utility infrastructure, vehicles, streams of commerce, and health infrastructure.  As we become increasingly dependent on technology for automation, there is a growing risk that technology, either intentionally or by accident, will create or worsen an emergency.

 

Technical risks can take many forms.  The first and most straightforward form is a technological failure that creates an emergency condition.  For example, imagine what would happen if all the internet-enabled thermostats, across a wide area, suddenly failed during a prolonged cold snap in the heart of winter.  Without a functioning thermostat, many residents would not be able to heat their homes.  Large numbers of people could face hypothermia and many could die.  The lack of heat could also cause property damage as pipes freeze and homes become flooded.  As we consider the risks posed by this example, consider how existing emergency response structures and plans would address this situation.  Many emergency response plans would have the ability to open shelters and transport people to the shelters, but who is going to be prepared to replace large numbers of thermostats across a wide area to allow homes to be warmed again?  Where will the plumbing resources come from to deal with large numbers of burst pipes?  Plumbers could be unavailable in many areas, thereby leaving many homes flooded and uninhabitable with no water service.  Finally, consider how a wide spread event like this could impact the insurance and financial markets.

 

Technical risks can also worsen the impact of traditional emergencies.  For example, consider what happens when a hurricane hits a community.  The hurricane itself will typically cause flooding, wind damage, and storm surge.  The flood waters, wind, and storm surge can damage power and communications facilities and cause wide spread power and communications outages.  In the past, people would rely on phone lines powered by the phone company and off-the-air television and radio stations for information about the storm; but in recent years, the trend has been for people to switch from traditional phone lines and off-the-air communications methods to internet and cellular communications systems.  As a part of this switch, people have become increasingly reliant on cellular networks for communication service and power to charge their cellular devices.  The problem with this growing dependence is that natural disasters, like hurricanes, can cause significant damage to cellular network sites, cause operational cellular networks to become overloaded, and cause long-term power outages that keep people from being able to charge their devices.  These impacts may worsen an emergency event by making it difficult for victims and emergency teams to communicate.  The lack of power, cellular service, and internet access could also create psychological issues within the impacted areas.  Many people have become addicted to continuous connectivity and technology.  When power and communication system interruptions cause people to become disconnected, people who are addicted to technology and connectivity could go through a type of withdrawal and become aggressive and anxious.  When the stress of technological withdrawal is combined with the traditional stress of the emergency, emergency responders may find themselves dealing with a community that is far more agitated than the communities they’ve dealt with in the past.  There are steps that emergency planners can take to prepare for these enhanced risks.  Emergency planners and government officials should take steps to inform the public of technological risks and possible mitigations.  Responsible facets of government should also take steps to ensure that technological options are available to aid people in getting through emergency situations.  For example, emergency responders should plan to provide charging, cellular, and internet communications capabilities at shelter sites in the same way that they often provide water, sleeping, and hygiene facilities.  In all of these cases, people who deeply understand technology, emergency scenarios, and emergency resources will be essential.  

 

One final form of technological risk is the risk of technology being used by malicious actors to custom craft emergency conditions.  For example, consider the viral way that many currently get their news, often without any form of fact checking.  There are a number of ways that a well planned misinformation campaign could cause people to take action; and in some instances, even cause panic.  Hacking of vehicles could also create or worsen emergency conditions.  Imagine if a hacker in the future could take control of the accelerator of a car, the steering of a car, or remotely disable a car.  What if the malicious actors could simultaneously hack multiple cars and disable hundreds of cars while people attempted to evacuate an area?  What if hackers could cause technology to overload and cause a fire, while simultaneously impacting the flow of water through a city water system?  Even more, what if cars were disabled to clog roads and keep emergency responders from reaching the scene of the fire?  Resources, with strong technical and emergency skills, are needed to plan for, mitigate, and respond to these types of risks.

 

In order to deal with these technical emergency risks, emergency teams will not only need to work with technical resources to prepare for future technical emergencies, but also have technical resources integrated tightly into their teams.  These integrated technical resources are essential in order to identify and respond to dynamic, changing, and unique technological risks.  It is also essential that these technical emergency resources be integrated at all levels of the emergency process.  While the federal government has some resources available, many state and local emergency response organizations lack team members with strong technical knowledge.  Many of our emergency resources, especially at the state and local level, are focused on the emergencies of the past, and may be caught off guard if they don’t begin to plan for the technological risks of the future.  

 

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