Research and Advances
Computing Applications

Intelligent Mobile Crisis Response Systems

Systems to help coordinate responder communication and response efforts in order to minimize the threat to human life and damage to property.
  1. Introduction
  2. Incident Scenario
  3. References
  4. Authors
  5. Figures
  6. Tables

A crisis can occur anywhere at any time, and the people whose job is to respond might be geographically dispersed. Flexible and robust mobile communication is paramount for helping ensure that the crisis is handled in the most efficient and effective manner possible.

Along with communication, another essential component of a response is the ability to coordinate actions among emergency team members, including rescuers, dispatchers, and resource coordinators, especially in risky, uncertain, time-sensitive environments. The need for coordination is heightened when a crisis spans multiple jurisdictions [2] or requires a regional response [1]. This combination of communication and coordination is the key to an effective response.

Mobile communication networks must be deployed within an integrated human-system interaction environment that can handle the collaborative aspects of responding to a crisis. Doing so would provide a crisis response system (CRS) with the requisite intelligence to support crisis response workers in an emergency.

Any CRS must support a collaborative knowledge-based environment that facilitates timely and relevant information exchange leading to the successful resolution of the crisis [4]. A CRS must generally support six major tasks (see Figure 1); though listed in linear order, they are not necessarily sequential and may be considered parallel or iterative. Together, they represent the key functional areas of a CRS (see Table 1). Creating integrated systems built over mobile networks that perform each of the six major tasks is the key to facilitating an intelligent crisis response. This involves the use of state-of-the-art IT distributed over a network of mobile devices that remains active and alert, monitors the environment, and communicates and collaborates with users and with other systems.

In terms of monitoring and reporting, signs of a crisis must be detected at the outset. Pervasive sensing technology can help by forming an elaborate sensor network to continuously monitor crisis-prone areas from multiple perspectives. Messages to human observers could then be forwarded over mobile communication devices. Conversations with emergency callers could be structured to facilitate the capture and retention of important crisis information. Utilizing predefined rules and reasoning mechanisms, information received from a variety of sources could be verified quickly, used to generate standard reports using templates, and forwarded to the appropriate emergency centers.

Information gathered from a variety of sources can help estimate the extent of a disaster and provide a basis for initial action. A CRS could quickly collect background information from multiple sources and identify the crisis experts who must be contacted. Information-gathering agents could reduce workloads and time delays. Database systems could maintain profiles of crisis experts and crisis characteristics, using automatic indexing and information retrieval algorithms to classify this information and match experts with crisis scenarios.

Appropriate responders must be identified, selected, and contacted. Such notification should be based on the nature and magnitude of the crisis and guided by predefined regulations and emergency plans. If they are stored electronically, the system should be able to identify the people needed to handle law enforcement and fire and rescue operations. Furthermore, by using multiple directory databases, requests could be sent over mobile communication devices to all parties who must be aware of the situation. A number of wireless carriers provide emergency email notification of natural disasters and other emergencies through cell phones and pagers. Multiple directory databases could provide redundant communication channels to reach emergency responders.

Teams of crisis workers, including firefighters, police, and medical emergency professionals, must be formed quickly, assigned roles and responsibilities, and deployed to disaster sites. Assignments are based on their qualifications and previous experience. Volunteer activity might also need to be coordinated, possibly through the preregistration of volunteers in local emergency response databases; when a disaster occurs, these volunteers are contacted right away. The organization of response teams may not be fixed throughout the crisis but rather evolves as the availability of qualified personnel fluctuates.

State-of-the-art technology could help formulate response teams by matching the skills of crisis workers with the tasks required to contain and eliminate the crisis. Due to the uncertainty and dynamic nature of a crisis, each team’s or each individual’s role may change. Thus the situation must be monitored, and groups and individuals must be redeployed and reorganized as necessary over dynamically adaptive networks. To help with this activity, decision-making agents could quickly examine multifaceted data and recommend courses of action.

The effort of a variety of emergency response teams must be coordinated. Advanced IT could play a key role in facilitating information sharing among team members during a rescue operation. The technology would have primary responsibility for maintaining up-to-date crisis information and for providing crews with summaries enabling them to see the overall picture, as well as specific, detailed information on its various aspects. Virtual reality and geographical information systems could be used to model disaster sites and recreate the disaster in order to assess the type and severity of the damage. Thus, during a disaster, experts and emergency responders in both local and remote locations could update the crisis information, and the system would record and display all changes to current users. High-speed global networks and grids could facilitate such operations on a global scale.

The causes of a crisis and the resulting damage might also be evaluated. Databases could be used to maintain a historical record, documenting everything about a crisis as it happens in real time over mobile networks. Predefined templates could help record the most pertinent and useful information. Data mining techniques could help identify key events and patterns in the crisis data, and case-based reasoning mechanisms could help match the crisis under investigation with other similar cases and events. Preliminary reports could be produced to help human experts in their assessment and investigation of the crisis.

Table 2 lists the key roles involved in each of the six tasks; Table 3 lists example CRS technologies and Web sites. Though they can facilitate an effective crisis response, the CRS must help crisis workers respond and react creatively to the specific requirements of each individual situation. The system should let human experts go about their jobs in a manner that best reflects the context and needs of the specific situation at hand, rather than dictating a particular approach or solution. Technical challenges include compatibility among existing technologies; software portability and access; how to supply sufficient bandwidth to support video and graphic displays; how to integrate data from multiple sources; and how to handle multiple information types.

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Incident Scenario

The following scenario reflects the problems that occurred during a real hazardous material incident in Casa Grande, AZ, in 1983 [3]. Based on this example, we illustrate how an intelligent mobile CRS might have helped resolve some of them. The scenario involves a train transporting hazardous materials that stopped near the city’s downtown with smoke coming from one of its cars. When entering Casa Grande, the train engineer did not know he had a fire on board and thus failed to report it to the local police, fire department, and rail company.

Although police and firefighters arrived shortly afterward, no information was immediately available about the hazardous material that was burning inside the car or on the extent the cargo was a threat to human health. The rail company was not contacted until 20 minutes into the incident, and even then, incomplete cargo information was obtained.

Uncertainty remained as to how to contain and suppress the fire and whether an evacuation was warranted. Local police and firefighters lacked training in dealing with hazardous material crises. As a result, the response emphasized suppressing the fire—a traditional crisis response for the local crews—rather than on evacuating the immediate area. It was not until 40 minutes into the crisis that the emergency crews realized the smoke was dangerous—only after several police officers had become incapacitated and had to be hospitalized.

Meanwhile, crowds of citizens converged on the scene, hampering the movement of emergency vehicles and personnel. Though the fire department advised the police to evacuate the area within five minutes of learning of the incident, 20 minutes elapsed before additional help was requested for traffic and crowd control. Discussions of how to fight the fire and the extent of the evacuation area were still taking place 30 minutes after the incident began.

Only limited information was available on the toxicity of the smoke, and response crews did not know whether to order an evacuation when residents were confronted with the smoke or to employ more conservative measures. Ultimately, local residents were not notified to evacuate until the nearby area was inundated with smoke.

Due to the shortage of equipment and lack of an identifiable command post, there were failures in communication among emergency workers. No direct communication channel existed between the police and fire departments, and knowledge of who was doing what was generally absent. This resulted in duplication of effort by response crews and a severe shortage of workers for certain tasks.

Even though there were six hazardous-material-handling teams in Arizona at the time, the state’s hazardous materials coordinator did not arrive on the scene until the crisis was fairly well controlled. When the fire (but not the smoke) had been suppressed, the fire commander issued a statement that the situation was under control—without performing a careful risk assessment. The police wrongly perceived the smoke hazard as an insignificant threat to health. No information was provided about the amount of damage done by the fire, nor were Casa Grande citizens given information about the long-term health effects of inhaling the smoke.

An intelligent mobile CRS would have facilitated a more effective response. Figure 2 outlines a proposed solution, supporting the six critical tasks cited earlier and leveraging the use of advanced IT in an integrated mobile network of computers and human crisis workers. Such action is necessary to facilitate an intelligent crisis response. We encourage further research and development in this area.

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F1 Figure 1. Major tasks of an intelligent mobile CRS.

F2 Figure 2. Intelligent mobile CRS scenario for a hazardous-material rail incident.

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T1 Table 1. Major tasks of a CRS.

T2 Table 2. Roles in an intelligent mobile CRS.

T3 Table 3. Example CRS technologies and related Web sites.

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    1. Campbell, D. 9/11: A healthcare provider's response. Front. Health Serv. Manage. 19, 1 (2002), 3–13.

    2. Daley, E. Wireless interoperability. Public Manage. 85, 4 (2003), 6–10.

    3. Pijawka, D., Radwan, A., and Soesilo, J. Emergency response to a hazardous-materials rail incident in Casa Grande, Arizona. In Crisis Management: A Casebook, M. Charles and J. Kim, Eds. Charles C. Thomas Publishers, Springfield, IL, 1988, 43–63.

    4. Turoff, M. Past and future emergency response information systems. Commun. ACM 45, 4 (Apr. 2002), 29–32.

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