This blog is contributed by a Director of Utility Solutions at Unearth.
The irony did not escape me when I returned home from the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) conference to get hit with a major storm a few days later.
The severe storm hit the Northwest with gusts of wind that turned our beautiful green trees into flying hazards, leaving two dead, thousands without power, and my teenage daughter unable to find a way home through the maze of downed trees and power lines. I was personally without power for 24 hours and many of my friends for much longer.
I should have stayed home. Instead, I ventured out through the maze of roads blocked by trees and downed lines to get to my daughter and bring her safely home.
In the process, I could have been capturing information valuable to responders. Ironically, that is exactly the reason I was at the IAEM conference a few days before and exactly what was so exciting to the emergency response managers I spoke to.
See how Mobile Geographic Information Systems (GIS) streamline emergency response, help prevent natural gas explosions, and even mitigate wildfire risk.
Why damage assessments require urgent innovation
When a major event occurs, emergency managers need to quickly assess damage so they can effectively plan a response and deploy resources to open roads for first responders, perform necessary rescues, and get power restored, among other priorities.
My discussions with emergency managers at the IAEM conference confirmed a few things:
1. Though emergency management is being transformed with new technologies, collecting damage information is still communicated via analog tools that provide limited detail to assess the impact quickly.
2. Field teams need simple, digital tools to capture, share, and view data in real-time.
3. Unearth’s rapid damage assessment toolkit could really make a difference by streamlining and expediting field work, which minimizes outages, cuts costs, and - most importantly - saves lives.
My favorite part of IAEM was talking directly to emergency managers who confirmed what we’ve been learning from our utility clients.
Municipal public works crews and utility providers face unprecedented weather and increasingly complex operations - and crews brave long days and taxing work, regardless of wind, snow, or rain.
Manual processes exacerbate this stress, promote confusion, and - ultimately - keep workers in the field for longer, prolonging power restoration. And as many people confirmed at IAEM, it’s time to deploy modern technologies to collect actionable information that can minimize the duration and impact of major storms and other events.
How do responders currently collect information?
Collecting damage information during a major event is currently a tricky affair.
Unlike many other areas of our life, there isn’t a single source of truth or information that gives responders a full picture of everything. They piece together clues from 911 calls, reports from residents, and - increasingly - data from sensors throughout our electric infrastructure which indicate outages.
Based on these clues, spotters are sent out to do “windshield surveys,” where they drive down roads or along power lines and report more detailed information via radio to the command center.
Using technology to revolutionize the process
Increasingly, responders are looking to technology to help.
Just as grid sensors are replacing the need for residents to report outages, new technologies have the potential to put actionable information in the hands of responders in minutes rather than hours or days.
Responders are looking at many different technologies to solve this problem. Some of the more promising are drones, satellite imagery, and even aggregating social media posts. While each has their advantages and disadvantages, IAEM attendees validated the insights of our clients that a key piece of the puzzle is right in our pockets.
When I ventured out to find my daughter, I became a potential liability for responders. I knew that, but the safety of my daughter overshadowed all sound judgement. Even so, I also had the potential to be an asset to responders.
I was essentially doing a windshield survey - discovering downed lines, closed roads, and other hazards that the incident commanders had yet to discover and factor into their plans.
As our utility clients have pointed out, I could easily have been taking pictures of the hazards I found and providing some basic comments on what I was seeing.
The photos along with the geospatial information provides much more reliable and actionable information than traditional analog tools and eliminates many of the bottlenecks of other communication channels.
And as Eric Holdeman says, it gets “crap on a map” very quickly, so responders can see the bigger picture of the incident while being able to drill into the details.
Of course, public input is just one dimension.
Taking it up another layer, equipping field teams with simple, digital tools ensures greater detail and accuracy in reports than simply relaying the same damage via radio. Moreover, field teams could easily access damage reports that surround them - critical situational awareness that increases their safety, powers decision-making, and ensures proper prioritization.
And taking it a little further yet, the same tool in the pocket of responders can indicate where to get food, housing, and other details especially important to mutual aid responders that are unfamiliar with the area. (But that’s a topic for another blog - leveraging mobile software in the field opens up a whole world of possibilities.)
Empowering field responders, wherever work happens
Of course, this approach will not be relevant to every emergency and situation. Each tool, including drones and satellite imagery, have their place.
That said, the Unearth rapid assessment capabilities can be an important “tool in the toolbox” of emergency managers in helping to reduce the impact and duration of severe storm events and other emergencies.