DHS is “SHAKING” Up Disaster Preparedness

When thinking of earthquakes in the U.S., California often comes to mind. But what if a massive earthquake suddenly struck Middle America? Would first responders and emergency managers have the tools to swiftly secure infrastructure and ensure public safety? Would every level of government, as well as stakeholders at non‑governmental organizations or in the private sector, know how to properly communicate and share resources? The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) asked itself these questions, and they were the driving force behind S&T joining the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and others for FEMA’s 2019 Shaken Fury exercise.

Although you seldom hear about earthquakes in the central U.S., the threat is real along the New Madrid Seismic Zone, which crosses eight states: Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Mississippi. An earthquake there could cause catastrophic physical and economic loss, which makes bringing stakeholders together in one place so critical for preparation. From soil degradation to identifying alternate transportation routes, from power generation to destroyed pipelines—the need to coordinate and deliver relief is of utmost importance.

Under the guise of a fictional 7.7 magnitude earthquake, S&T deployed teams and technologies to several Shaken Fury exercise locations in the region to improve response and recovery capacities and assist state and local organizations with the adoption of new technologies and protocols. Throughout a week in late May and early June, S&T and FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Program, the Central United States Earthquake Consortium (CUSEC), U.S. Department of Defense, the National Guard, state and local government agencies, NGOs, and the private sector coordinated response efforts and resources across what in a real emergency would be a nearly unimaginable expanse of need.

“The importance of Shaken Fury is that it provided S&T with an opportunity to get our technology in front of the folks that potentially will be using it to manage disaster response—expose them to it, and train them on it,” said S&T Program Manager Ron Langhelm. “This way, if they have an event next week, they’re better prepared to utilize the tools that they have available.”

In the year and a-half it took to plan the exercise, S&T determined that the primary objectives would be to:

  • Leverage S&T’s research and development portfolio to enhance information sharing and urban search and rescue practices;
  • Demonstrate a “whole community” approach to adjudicating and allocating critical resources;
  • Integrate real-time field reporting capabilities in emergency operation centers.

“Our role in Shaken Fury was to bring in science and technology capabilities to enhance not only resilience, but also to foster a stronger culture of innovation within the first responder space,” said Colin Murray, Senior Exchange Officer from Canada to S&T. By bringing new technology and approaches to bear on challenges, such as finding disaster survivors in rubble or ensuring a shared understanding of the situation on the ground in multiple states, S&T showcased a range of solutions and tools to help responders remain safer and more effective.

S&T Technologies Deployed at Shaken Fury

Information Sharing

In many disasters, particularly in a constantly-evolving situation like the aftermath of an earthquake, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is communication—not simply the ability for agencies to speak to one another, but also the challenge of getting the information they need, when they need it, in a form that’s useful. For the past several years, S&T has partnered with CUSEC to develop tools for automated sharing of situational data across different platforms. For Shaken Fury, S&T developed data dashboards linking to FEMA’s seven community lifelines (pdf, 280.75 KB, 1 page ), which are indispensable services, and developed links to seamlessly share information between civilian and Department of Defense elements responding to the disaster. The dashboards were integrated into Shaken Fury play at emergency operations centers in Kentucky and Tennessee.

“The primary information sharing tool we deployed is the Regional Information Sharing Portal (RISP). And essentially, that is the backbone of all the information sharing systems that we have,” said Langhelm. “We had information both feeding into it as well as flowing back out it into other applications. For the folks working the field on the ground, this supported their decision-making in everything from where to move commodities to mitigating power outages. You know, where they could best utilize resources and deploy those resources in the field.”

Michael Dossett, Director of the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management and CUSEC Chairman, attested to RISP’s usefulness. “I can look at the level of damage and the predicted recovery time, and that gives me some idea… of how to prepare for what’s coming toward us,” he said.

“We can now pull-down layers from just about everything, whether it be sheltering, transportation, energy, health. The ability to pull all those resources together, leverage technology to move the information, and then allow folks at my level to make critical decisions—I submit to you, this is the foundation of a process that you will see go on for the next decade in terms of more timely, tested data in the hands of state emergency managers that allows us, quite frankly, to make life-saving decisions.”

Josh Wickham, Planning Branch Administrator for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, agreed. “One thing we really liked about RISP is that it is tied into our existing resource tracking board. With this tool, we can change a few of our processes to create a dashboard that can identify resource status based on region or county, filter by FEMA Lifelines, and create automated maps to see which counties are activated for which Lifeline. This is one of my favorite tools because it is just one button that creates all this information that we haven’t had before.”

The ability to share critical emergency information at the tribal, local, state, and federal levels is not lost on FEMA, either. “Platforms like what DHS S&T has developled are so important to the whole community because we’re all seeing the same things,” said FEMA Region IV Administrator Gracia Szczech. “We are all looking at, assessing and singing off the same sheet of music… that’s why it’s so important to have these types of platforms… so that we can all be together and make those decisions together.”

Urban Search and Rescue (USAR)

Under the Shaken Fury umbrella, S&T staff also deployed to the Muscatatuck Training Center in Indiana for Unified Response, the largest-ever US&R exercise hosted in the U.S. The multi-national exercise included 13 US&R teams from the U.S., Canada and Australia, the State of Illinois, as well as six FEMA task forces, the Department of Defense and National Guard. S&T demonstrated and integrated both existing and emerging technologies into the exercise. Responders used the technologies to search for “disaster survivors” in simulated rubble piles and collapsed buildings.

“One of the great things about the collaboration we’ve done with DHS S&T is the ability to bring out new and emerging technologies to this exercise. Put those technologies in front of responders that are actually in a disaster simulated environment and try them out,” said Brian Smith, program specialist with FEMA.

S&T planned the demonstration/integration model to expose the responders to the potential of the tools and inform the technology developers of needed design adjustments based on field use. “The benefit of DHS S&T being here has been that the future technology to do our job better was here. We could see it. We could test it. We could play with it,” said Evan Schumann, Program Manager for Ohio Task Force 1 and one of the key players in the Shaken Fury exercise. “They can go back and make it better for us. And, hopefully, get it to us in the next few years.”

One of S&T’s transitioned, commercially-available technologies used at MUTC, X3 FINDER, allows responders to “see” through walls to locate trapped disaster survivors by detecting heartbeats and respiration. X3 FINDER was tested with US&R teams from the U.S. and Canada in both rubble piles and partially collapsed buildings. During a demo with the Nebraska Task Force 1, FINDER was operating at the same time as rescue dogs were searching the building for survivors. In this evaluation, FINDER located each survivor and accomplished this faster than the dogs.

“The advantage to introducing something like this to Shaken Fury is to expose the US&R groups to new technology hands-on—not us telling them about it,” said Michael Buckley, training director for SpecOps Group, developer of X3 FINDER. “We put it in their hands and teach them on the spot how to use it, then they see the results for themselves and then back up their findings with the data.”

“The main thing is, X3 FINDER provides standoff first responder safety,” Buckley said. “The first responder doesn’t have to crawl through the building, voids and thresholds. We can set this thing up, we can scan and look for signs of life without risking the first responder.”

The exercise also allowed a rare opportunity to test prototypes in a near real world environment. Two developers of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) platforms designed to operate indoors had the chance to do just that, alongside several Canadian US&R teams. With the ability to carry cameras and sensors enabling rescuers to conduct faster and safer searches inside compromised spaces, these tools are the next generation of life-saving robotics, extending the eyes, ears, and noses of people and search animals far past anything we can do today.

The industry partners developed the prototypes through S&T’s Smart City Internet of Things Innovation Laboratory (SCITI Labs) effort.

“Interacting directly with the eventual end user community is critical—an opportunity that most developers never get,” said David Ihrie, Chief Technology Officer at the Center for Innovative Technology, S&T’s SCITI Labs partner.

“In a collapsed building resulting from an earthquake, the search for survivors is very important.  In some cases, the responder teams may not know if the building is safe. There may be structural integrity questions about the building; the ability to send a UAV, a drone, in quickly, looking for signs of life, can help focus the search and get help to victims more quickly,” Ihrie said.

The cutting-edge UAVs were demonstrated in “compromised” spaces like a smoke-filled subway airshaft and tunnel, a dark shipping container structure, and a collapsed building frame in high wind. Performance results and feedback from the first responders will inform further development of the technologies, which could be commercially available in 2020.

Alongside these technologies that were used in-play, S&T also set up a technology showcase tent where 10 industry vendors showed off new and emerging technologies. Approximately 400 participants could view the technologies and discuss requirements with the subject matter experts, which greatly contributes to the evolution of the technologies.

“The exercise was…tremendously rich in terms of offering the technology developers the opportunity to get feedback from the responders,” said Murray. “We had a continuous stream of responders come in, get exposure to the new technologies, and offer feedback to the developers in terms of the potential that that technology has within an operational space. [Shaken Fury] was a very, very rewarding environment, and the feedback from the developers was very, very positive.”

Successes, Lessons Learned, and what’s next for Shaken Fury

A year-and-a-half ago, DHS S&T set on a path to bring cutting edge technology to one of the largest and most complex exercises. This summer, that was accomplished, and S&T demonstrated the value of technology to make operations more efficient, resource allocation more targeted, and ultimately help responders save more lives.

A second S&T Shaken Fury event—the Next Generation First Responder (NGFR) Birmingham Shaken Fury OpEx—occurred in August 2019. S&T’s NGFR team worked with industry and local authorities to augment their public safety capabilities before the Alabama city hosts the World Games in July 2021. The OpEx used an earthquake scenario that caused a partial structural collapse and a HAZMAT leak.

“The work we’re undertaking [through Shaken Fury] revolves around an earthquake scenario, but from the S&T standpoint, everything ,we deployed is applicable for all hazards,” said Langhelm. “…We’re looking to carry this into the future. All the successes we demonstrated around this scenario, they can carry into the event that’s going to happen tomorrow, two years, five, or  ten years down the road.”

An after-action report detailing lessons learned in Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee will be posted to S&T’s website for agencies at every level to study and use when real-life disasters occur.

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