Lincoln Laboratory applies national security expertise to
natural-disaster management

MIT Lincoln Laboratory is applying its national security expertise to assist federal, state, and local government agencies to respond to and manage large-scale disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and forest fires.

Photo of Lincoln Laboratory fire management teamThe MIT Lincoln Laboratory Fire Management Team, left to right, Sean Winkler, Justin Brooke, Adam Norige, and Joe Pacheco, has been delving into fire-incident manager information needs, collaborations, and decision processes.

Working with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and the Riverside County Fire Department, Lincoln Laboratory engineers are collecting data to understand the challenges and issues that arise during management of large-scale wildfires. Wildfire management was chosen as the Laboratory's initial disaster management application because firefighters are currently hampered by the lack of situational awareness when making critical decisions in response to rapidly changing conditions and life-threatening situations. The frequency of wildfires in California allows ample opportunity to test and evaluate new technical solutions.

Photo of the fire management team at fire in Santa Barbara, CA Lincoln Laboratory’s Fire Management Team observed operations during a wildfire near Santa Barbara, California, in July.

Management of and responses to wildfires are very complex problems and are similar to many of the challenges faced by the Department of Defense and other government agencies. These challenges require the ability to operate within critical timelines, the integration of information from multiple sources into a single situational awareness picture accessible down to the tactical level, and the ability to communicate and operate in harsh environments.

Arriving at the technical solutions for such problems requires an understanding of the overarching system architecture and operational paradigms. But Lincoln Laboratory is not unfamiliar with this approach, due to its work in developing an enhanced air defense situational awareness system to help protect the National Capital Region around Washington, D.C. The system distributes a common air operating picture to multiple agencies, allowing informed decision making in a time-critical environment. Its rapid two-year development and deployment timeline was made possible by the Laboratory's experience in the fields of air traffic control and safety, radar and electro-optic sensor systems, network communications, and automated decision support tools. The methodology applied to this air defense problem applies equally well to the wildfire management problem: intelligent fusion of many information sources, along with appropriate collaboration and visualization products at multiple organizational levels, can be used to improve the effectiveness of response decisions.

Photo of Poomacha fireA firefighter battles the Poomacha fire on Palomar Mountain in October 2007.

Lincoln Laboratory's strategy for developing a system architecture starts with a substantial review of the user's problem and constraints. In this initial effort with CAL FIRE, the Laboratory is reviewing the 2007 Harris Fire as a case study in fire management and decision processes. 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. Based on the initial needs analysis, the Lincoln Laboratory team is articulating a system architecture that can improve situational awareness for decision makers. Sensors, communications, and visualization and collaboration technologies will be selected or developed and integrated in FY09 as part of a proof-of-concept demonstration.

Posted September 2008

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