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Science and Technology

Science and Technology

Preparing First Responders with Critical Tools and Technologies

Kathryn Coulter Mitchell, Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Under Secretary for Science and Technology

In recent weeks, we have all been reminded of the devastation that can be caused by natural disasters: the active wildfire season has scorched over two million acres on the West Coast and Hurricane Ida resulted in significant infrastructure damage and extended power outages from Louisiana to Connecticut. Both have claimed lives and caused chaos, and the consequences to communities across the country continue to be felt.

September is National Preparedness Month, and it has never been more important to take a proactive approach in ensuring our families and loved ones are ready when they are faced with both natural and manmade disasters. We use the month to raise awareness of the importance of preparing for disasters and emergencies, and the 2021 theme is “Prepare to Protect. Preparing for disasters is protecting everyone you love.” Everyone must do their part, including the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T)—we work around the clock to ensure those on the front lines are equipped with the resources they need to safeguard our communities.

Recent events such as the Champlain Towers South collapse and Hurricane Ida highlight some of the challenges in preparing for both no-notice and forecasted events. When the 12-story condominium in the Miami suburb of Surfside, Florida, partially collapsed in June, it created a very challenging urban search and rescue (US&R) scenario. First responders had to conduct physical search and rescue operations in the collapsed structure while providing emergency medical care for victims, all while contending with some severe weather.

Little more than a month later, Hurricane Ida struck in the Gulf and then made its way up the East Coast, bringing with it many of the human and infrastructure consequences common with hurricanes. Ultimately, 33 FEMA and state US&R teams responded to assist with the response mission.

So, how do these two response efforts illustrate how S&T prepares the teams to be ready at a moment’s notice? Both events highlight that tools S&T developed, including ones to improve flood preparedness and response, can easily apply to all hazards and can be scaled to meet the needs of local, state, and federal stakeholders on a single platform. One such technology helping first responders gain an advantage in complex disaster response operations is the Search and Rescue Field Data Collection and Situational Awareness Platform developed by the National Alliance for Public Safety GIS (NAPSG) Foundation and funded by S&T.

Through our Community & Infrastructure Resilience Program (C&IR), we partnered with the NAPSG Foundation and FEMA over a three-year period to develop tools and standards to increase first responder resource management preparedness and improve efficiencies in responding to a variety of disaster events. As a result, the Search and Rescue Field Data Collection and Situational Awareness Platform was deployed during the Champlain Towers South collapse and Hurricane Ida, where FEMA and the NAPSG Foundation were able to utilize GIS technology to help the responding US&R teams effectively plan and track search progression, provide a mechanism to follow up on critical issues, and inform executive leadership about incident status in near real time. The tool had previously been used in the aftermath of devastating tornadoes in South Carolina and throughout the 2020 hurricane season.

Both recent events required a scalable and easy-to-use system to capture thousands of authoritative data points by various teams. The platform combines standardized applications and language, training materials, and a host of resources to aid in the adoption of the tools. It allowed US&R teams on-scene to collect and share data across the common operating platform and rapidly identify and employ the right people and resources at the optimal point of impact.

This coordination has also spurred conversations around US&R resource inventorying, as well as the creation of a National Search and Rescue Geospatial Coordination group.

S&T is committed to its support for first responders and continues to ensure our nation’s disaster resilience. Contact CIR_STMCS@hq.dhs.gov for more about S&T’s Community & Infrastructure Resilience Program and partnership with the NAPSG Foundation.

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