MIT Lincoln Laboratory develops innovative disaster response system

September 11, 2001, Hurricane Katrina, wildfires in southern California—the public's recollections of these disasters are images of chaos. Emergency responders fighting blazes and flooding, law enforcement securing sites and crowds, and medical teams treating victims all are parts of these memorable scenes. The larger the disaster, the more complicated becomes the situation as thousands of responders from local, state, and federal  agencies must be coordinated in the response and relief efforts. At MIT Lincoln Laboratory, researchers are exploring ways technology could be used to support emergency responders during such rapidly evolving, catastrophic events.

A Lincoln Laboratory team, building on expertise in sensors and architectures, has developed the Lincoln Distributed Disaster Response System. This integrated sensing and command-and-control system was successfully demonstrated last summer, in conjunction with operational partners in California's emergency response community, in both simulated exercises and real operations.

The initial design of the system resulted from a reconstruction and analysis of the 2007 Harris Fire (see story listed at right). The Harris fire was one of four major fires in San Diego County that started on the same day, burning 400,000 acres, destroying over 1400 homes and commercial structures, and causing the evacuation of more than 500,000 people—the largest evacuation in California's history. Through interviews with emergency-response operators and analysis of archived radio communications, reports, incident maps, and ground and aerial imagery, the Laboratory team developed a picture of the challenges inherent in fighting a large-scale wildland fire, and more generally, in conducting a large-scale disaster response.

Elements of the Lincoln Distributed Disaster Response System

The graphic illustrates the components of the Lincoln Distributed Disaster Response System (click on image for a larger view).

The Laboratory team focused on wildland fires because the frequency of wildfires in California allows ample opportunity to test and evaluate new technical solutions for disaster response. "We found the main problem was the lack of situational awareness and collaboration among front-line responders," says Andy Vidan, a technical staff member of the Advanced System Concepts Group who worked on the project. "Responders lacked a picture of the current fire location and behavior, timely knowledge of weather predictions and terrain information, and a coordinated dynamic incident action plan." Communication among responders in the field and the command centers was inadequate: responders needed a way to capture information from a variety of sources and distribute the information in real time.

This is where Lincoln Laboratory's broad experience with the collection, integration, and display of data came into play. The system the team developed enables information from airborne platforms, distributed weather stations, GPS-enabled devices, and other sources to be shared by responders at the emergency command centers and those equipped with ruggedized laptops at the front lines. All the system components are connected in real time, allowing operators to relay situation data and command personnel to make informed decisions. Responders and the command centers are connected over the network and gain access to the system via a Web-based graphical interface, enabling responders from all agencies to collaborate, regardless of computer hardware or software. Vidan says the emergency response personnel involved in the initial demonstrations particularly liked the collaborative "whiteboard" that allowed them to "hand draw" fire behavior and plan response strategies in real time on a shared map.

The demonstration of the disaster response system this past summer tested the technical performance of the system and assessed the impact of new technologies on the current concept of operations (CONOPS). The demonstration consisted of a set of scenarios, including initial response, evacuation planning and coordination, real-time flight tasking, and a search-and-rescue mission. Roughly 40 role players participated in the demonstration, all professional responders chosen to represent various types (command, air, and ground), functions (fire and law enforcement), and organizations (federal, state, county). The success of the system in enabling personnel to maintain real-time shared situational awareness during response operations impressed both the participants and observers. Operators spoke of the system's potential as being "nearly limitless" and stated that "this capability will save lives."

This experience allowed the Laboratory team to gain insight into the future development of both technologies and CONOPS to support response efforts during large-scale, catastrophic incidents. The team plans to expand upon the system's capabilities by adding new sensors, making communications more robust, and incorporating decision support tools. By expanding upon this system and establishing a national disaster response test bed, researchers and operators can develop technology and conduct training exercises in preparation for future high-impact disasters.

Posted March 2010

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