Advances in technology have fueled a veritable cornucopia of innovations. These innovations have a direct impact on the field of emergency management (EM). Affecting training and tactics, information gathering and retrieval, incident response and command and control, technology has enhanced all aspects of EM. Real time imagery, secure digital communications, UAV’s, GPS, enhanced databases and imaging technology are but a few innovations that have had an impact.
Secure wireless digital networks have enhanced all facets of emergency management. Wireless cameras allow training areas to be set up anywhere and provide instant feedback to trainers and evaluators to critique military and civilian firefighting, SWAT, dynamic entry and surveillance teams. These cameras also allow for remote covert surveillance of an investigative target, critical infrastructure or natural hazards such as volcanoes. The ability to remotely monitor volcanoes and wildfires saves lives and equipment by monitoring conditions in remote areas where these hazards exist allows for longer lead times in ordering evacuations.
New digital communications equipment has several features that enhance EM response. Frequency hopping radios allow for secure communications as long as all radios are programmed the same. Some radios even have the ability to transmit and display GPS data of the sender. Civilian radios have ranges up to 30 miles under good conditions and as impressive as this is, military radios have ranges of hundreds of miles and that doesn’t include satellite radios that have unlimited reach and by using micro-burst technology are impossible to triangulate. These radios have had a huge impact on real time command and control such as with the SEAL raid on 11 May 2011 where commanders in the Indian Ocean, Iraq and Washington D.C. were all able to watch the raid unfold live.
GPS and real time satellite imagery go hand in hand. The ability to remotely gather such large quantities of data has its benefits and pitfalls. With terabytes of data coming in storage and analysis are the two of the biggest issues. Real time remote imagery can be used to monitor secure locations such as space shuttle launch and ICB launch sites or to monitor wildfires or geothermal emissions or even analyze forests through the infrared spectrum to find illicit plant growth. The growth of illicit plants in our National Forests and recreation areas is a national security threat. This imagery also allows the military to plot cruise missile strikes to within inches. GPS also allows first responders to know the location of a 911 call even if the caller is unresponsive.
Enhanced imaging equipment allows firefighters to see in the pitch black of a fire, or the police to observe a suspect in the dark, Immigrations and Customs to monitor port areas. Imaging equipment includes thermal, night vision, infrared and hybrid systems. Hybrid systems use thermal and night vision to produce clear images in all conditions. Night vision devices require some light to operate either visible or infrared (IR emitters look like spotlights to an observer) whereas thermal doesn’t require any outside light emissions. This equipment is also expensive, some scopes can cost upwards if thirty thousand dollars, the equivalent to a year’s salary for an entry level responder. Regular scheduled maintenance and service are also considerations with this type of equipment. The military PVS-14 for example has a service life of roughly 4,000 hours after which a significant rebuild is required. The benefit of being able to operate unobserved in the dark is a gigantic tactical advantage.
Databases and graphic interfaces allow for storage and retrieval of huge quantities of data in a usable format. These include driver’s license records, criminal records, background checks, vehicle registrations, and property and tax records. By combining these with NGS maps and NOAA weather information emergency managers can plan and prepare for damage from any given hazard. The Okaloosa County GIS for example can show annual rainfall, storm surge data and population density. This gives emergency managers a lot of data, knowing how to employ and utilize this in an efficient and timely manner is more art than science.
One of the newest tools available to emergency management, first responders and the military is unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s). These allow for remote surveillance, monitoring and data collection. UAV’s allow operators to gather atmospheric and storm data as well volcanic or flood data without risking a live pilot. These are quite expensive to build and operate. Another weakness is that these are sometimes operated on an unsecure network which would allow someone with the tools, technology and know-how to commandeer a UAV, such as happened in December 2011. Overall the benefits outweigh the negatives as long as Constitutional protections are followed and enforced.
Technology is just one tool in the toolbox of emergency management. Knowledge, experience and training are all vital to managers. Having technology without the background to know how to properly utilize it and knowing what technology is needed in a given locale. Brown and Root has been awarded 57 million to build a database for the Department of Federal Protective Services (FPS), however FPS has yet to receive the technology because the parameters and requirements have been changed multiple times causing the delay and wasting taxpayer dollars. Instead of going with the latest and greatest, FPS could have built a database that was adaptable and expandable that would have been more cost efficient if not as tailored to the end-user. This goes back to knowing what you need and how to verbalize those requirements to the supplier. Technology is a help, not a crutch. Over reliance on technology can cause people to forget how to use simpler methods of mission accomplishment. For example instead of sending an email attachment can you send a fax, use a courier or just communicate the information verbally. Contingency planning plays a pivotal role in this process.