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    The Washington Mudslide: Should there be an 'App for That'?

    There's no going back to prevent the Oso disaster, but we can use technology to improve our response to future disasters. Here's how.
    Members of the Washington Air National Guard wade through mud and debris looking for signs of missing persons.

    Members of the Washington Air National Guard wade through mud and debris looking for signs of missing persons. Photo: Washington National Guard

    The hillside that gave way near Oso, WA.

    The hillside that gave way near Oso, WA. Credit: WSDOT

    The horrific mudslide and loss of life in Snohomish County on March 22nd is an ongoing tragedy in Washington state. Six days after the disaster, 17 people are known dead and 90 are still missing. A debate rages about Steelhead Drive near Oso, Washington. This was a known slide area, geologically unstable. Search and rescue workers will be hard at work for some weeks digging through the mud and debris scattered across one square mile up to 30 feet deep.

    There are a lot of unanswerable questions out there: Why were building permits issued for this area? Should the County government have purchased these homes to get the residents out of harm’s way, as King County apparently did in Maple Valley?  Was the Washington National Guard activated quickly enough?

    One fact is certain: Future disasters such as the Oso Slide will occur. They might be slides, or bridge collapses or floods. They could be much larger in scope: An earthquake, lahar, tornado or terrorist event.

    We live in an age of the Internet and smartphones and ubiquitous technology. There are apps and technologies which can help responders to disasters such as the Oso Slide. What are they, and how can we apply them?


    Most people understand maps. Maps help us intuitively understand our place in the world and even our location on our block. Maps on our smartphones guide us easily to unknown addresses and warn us about traffic problems along the way. But these are all 2D.

    The Oso Slide and similar disaster scenes present a new 3D problem – the height and depth of the area. We know the two dimensional map of the Oso slide: Outlines of properties and the Stillaguamish River and Highway 530. And we know a vast volume of mud now covers that area. But in pursuing rescue efforts, how deep is the mud in any particular area? Where should searchers concentrate their efforts?

    Ideally, we’d have 3-dimensional maps of all such geographic areas prior to a slide, and we’d be able to quickly produce 3-dimensional maps afterward that would show the depth and extent of the mud throughout the disaster area. Such maps can be produced by technologies such as LIDAR and pictometry.   

    Common Operating Picture

    Common Operating Picture or COP is an extension of mapping. COP maps show everyone involved in responding to the disaster — but especially the incident commanders — an up-to-the-minute view of the scene. COP software will show the location of each individual responder, the location of all equipment on the scene, markers for human remains discovered and all other significant debris.

    COP software allows the incident commander to properly direct new resources — vehicles, equipment and people — to exactly where they are needed on-scene. And COP software protects responders by accounting for them every minute they are in the disaster area.

    Just as importantly, COP will produce a history of the disaster as rescue unfolds. It will show areas which have been physically surveyed, where remains were uncovered and how the rescue proceeded. This is vital so that responders can learn about the incident and train to better handle the next one.

    COP is useful in just about any incident, whether it be for deploying police and emergency medical teams during the Seahawks victory parade, protecting fans at a Mariners’ baseball game, managing a major fire or responding to a terrorist event. COP is the incident commanders’ best friend when it comes to managing all the responders and equipment on-scene.

    The Seattle Police Department currently leads an effort to deploy COP software from a company called 4QTRS for emergency and incident management. COP software should be deployed and used by every emergency response agency in the nation.

    GPS and cell phones

    Most of us know our smart phones contain global positioning software (GPS), which allows us to tweet and use Foursquare and post photographs to Facebook which automagically contain our location. Many of us use apps like “Find my iPhone” which depend upon GPS.

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    Posted Fri, Mar 28, 4:04 p.m. Inappropriate

    This was an inspiring discussion on solutions!

    One way that off-the-shelf technology can be used at Oso is illustrated by using the "PDF Maps" app, which responders can download to their smartphones and then use in the field, without an internet connection. The phone GPS is usually functional even in remote areas so the combination of PDF Maps and GPS makes for a good transitional solution. There's a post-slide aerial photo map that was posted for Oso responders at http://cascadiapacificgroup.com/?p=333

    Great Job Bill!


    Posted Fri, Mar 28, 11:50 p.m. Inappropriate


    I wasn't aware of that app, and thank you for noting it.

    I also didn't mention drones, but could have - I think these unmanned aerial vehicles could really help with the response to the slide.


    Posted Sun, Mar 30, 3:18 p.m. Inappropriate

    Thank you Bill for this article.
    In WC-SAR, we have been working to take advantage of new technologies in improving our abilities. Funding has been a major factor in our local agency's being able to take advantage of the recently available advances.
    We would like to be able to afford some of the better systems out there like IGT4SAR ( https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCrWNjhnpNOiEAATDzNw3lFg ) for ArcGIS. But at current funding this has not been possible due to ESRI costs. Intsead we look to Terrain Navigator Pro ( ftp://ftp.mytopo.com/downloads/TNP_SAR-EMS_Training_Manual.pdf ) and Mission Manager ( http://www.radishworks.com/MissionManager.php ). These do give us some resources both through the cloud and off-line(when cell service is not available). Mission Manager is working towards taking advantage of connecting cell phone capabilities.
    Our current efforts are geared towards getting live feed from our local HLS helicopter "OMAHA" to our command post. As you referred to in your article, gathering intelligence and sharing it in real time with who needs it most is critical in the initial rescue operations.
    Due to costs of small drones coming down, we have a couple that can be launched and controlled by cell phones. These can be deployed quickly and video feed provided to the field command post.
    Any advice or help in improving our system would be greatly appreciated. Usually our biggest limiting factor is funding.


    Posted Mon, Mar 31, 10:37 a.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks for mentioning these apps. I hadn't heard of them before and they look interesting.
    I didn't mention drones in the article because technically they are not "apps", but in the future I agree with you they will be essential to working disaster scenes like this, especially in the initial few hours.
    Thanks for the comments!

    Posted Mon, Mar 31, 9:18 p.m. Inappropriate

    We have a Find Me Smart phone app for Safety, And in this instance, the app would have had to have been activated, but we'll tweek it a bit to be able to utilize the FOLLOW Me feature when the person has had an incident like this. The app does have a "SHAKE" feature that if you open the app and shake it, it will activate and send a notice and GPS location to your contacts. Take a look and please give us some feedback on how we could use in this type of instance. Also, there is a Arcgis web based map software that local officials can see who has activated their app and the location of the phone (user). It is worth a shot in situations like this. www.findmetornado.com On android and iphone

    Posted Wed, Apr 2, 8:57 a.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks for the heads up about the app. I'll have a look. One problem with cell phone apps (and I'm sure you know this) is the relatively weak outgoing signal strength - a few hundred milliwatts. Ok for normal use but not very good when transmitting from under debris or through thick walls.
    Thanks for the heads up on these though. I appreciate it!

    Posted Sun, Apr 6, 12:57 p.m. Inappropriate

    I've got an idea for an app that could be used to keep disasters like Oso from happening in the first place. its tentative working name is 'Regulatory Unreform.' It would work by putting teeth in land use laws and regulations. For example, logging could be subjected to review under the State Environmental Policy Act, with public notice and compliance with SEPA's requirements that cumulative impacts be studied. If someone won a Growth Management Act appeal based on critical regulations not adequately protecting public safety or critical areas they would get all of their attorney fees and expenses paid by the losing jurisdiction. If a developer or logging company has any standing unresolved violations, no further permits would be approved. And how about applying "three strikes and you're out" to environmental violators? And make the fines large enough to really be a deterrent?

    Not as sexy as smart phone apps, I know, but probably more effective in the long run.

    PS: Oklahoma has no public storm shelters. If safety of the people living in Oklahoma isn't that important to the people who run the state, well, not having clever apps after the regularly predictable tornadoes is the least of the problem.

    Steve E.

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