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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