If you want to see an urban emergency manager sweat, just mention one name: Katrina.
Among the most destructive and deadly hurricanes in American history, the 2005 storm is likely the definition of “disaster” for anyone who watched it unfold in news coverage and over social media — as much for the human cost as for the drawn-out and flawed response.
It is inevitable that cities will face disasters, natural and man-made, but they don’t all have to be Katrinas. By using smart technology solutions to build upon best emergency management practices that were developed during the past century and more, cities will be able to prepare more effectively and respond more efficiently.
Having access to data from IoT networks is an unprecedented boon for emergency preparedness. Just knowing the travel habits of commuters from tracking mobile ticket activations across different modes of transit allows cities to predict where the greatest concentrations of people will be at any given hour, which can be accounted for in evacuation plans. And networked devices will make it possible to more effectively disseminate alerts, information and directives to the population — and to scale responses, so as to focus areas of greatest risk and thereby reduce the chance of panic in those where the risk is lower.
The promise of smart technology in response to disasters, though, is perhaps the greater opportunity. By mitigating the impact in the wake of a hurricane, an earthquake or other event, cities will be able to hasten the return to normalcy for citizens and businesses, reducing the emotional and economic impact of disasters.
There are already efforts to harness smart technology for this purpose. Indeed, when the tremors from 2011 offshore earthquake reached Japan, they were detected by sensors that automatically brought the country’s Shinkansen bullet trains to a halt. No trains were derailed in the subsequent 9.3-meter-tall tsunami.
The Urban Risk Lab at MIT — which is specifically tasked with finding ways to help cities deal with disasters — came up with the PrepHub, a melding of physical infrastructure and smart technology. It’s a multifunction station with a pedal-powered generator that provides charging for devices and acts as a communications center to help citizens after a disaster. Another response was developed after Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the East Coast. Because many local businesses were unable to get communications or data services in the following days, the New York City Economic Development Corporation held a contest to design solutions. One finalist was Red Hook WIFI, a resilient wireless network designed to provide internet access on the community level in the event of large-scale power outages.
Developing technology holds even more promise. Google’s patent filing for managing lane assignment for autonomous vehicles is a good example. Once there is a critical mass of autonomous vehicles — both privately owned and public transit — far more can be fit onto a road during an evacuation without creating bottlenecks and gridlock, getting more people to safety more quickly. It’s even possible they could be moved out of the way in a coordinated fashion to allow emergency response vehicles to get by with minimal or no delay.
What needs to happen now — well before the next blizzard of the century or catastrophic wildfire — is for smart city stakeholders to bring emergency planners into their circles, if they haven’t already. Having the internet of things integral to your city planning is not enough, by itself, to be prepared. You will need guidance from people well-versed in crisis management from experience in real-world situations.
Cities have proved their resiliency in the face of disasters time and again. However, it is inarguably smarter to take steps today to mitigate future catastrophes. The name Katrina will never lose its sting — nor should it, given the cost it levied — but cities should take every opportunity to leverage smart technology in ways that will make citizens safer in the face of future disasters.
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