How Rugged Mobile Tech Gives Disaster Response An Edge

As wildfires raged across the West last summer, firefighters tapped into high-tech tools to fight the blazes. More than 30 drone pilots, for example, guided UAVs into areas in Washington, Oregon, and California that were too dangerous for humans. The images — transmitted back to mobile devices — provided data to help track fires and inform the crews of their next best move. 

To be sure, with wildfires and other types of natural disasters, humans still do the brunt of the emergency response work. However, mobile technology is changing the game. Innovations are enabling everything from connectivity in extreme conditions to real-time information collection to new intelligence sources.

In turn, disaster management agencies can improve their response time, prioritize their efforts, and save more lives using emergency tech. It’s a new era of emergency management technology that benefits not just responding organizations but also the communities impacted by natural disasters.

Real-time data plays a big role in disaster response

In natural disaster response, minutes matter. The quicker responders can access information, the faster they can create a plan, whether that’s rescuing people trapped by a flood or deciding which parts of a town need to evacuate because of a hurricane.

Now, thanks to a wave of innovative technology, first responders have access to more data in the field than ever before. Firefighting agencies are increasing their use of drones — the 30 pilots flying this past summer doubled the number from the previous year. But UAVs are also employed in other disasters.

For example, after flooding in Peru three years ago, Peru Flying Labs created aerial images of 17,000 acres in just three days, covering much more ground than humans could in the same timespan.

The resulting maps provided humanitarian and emergency responders with critical information about damaged areas, routes for aid, and safe places for refugees. What’s more, the government could also use the images to track changes in the water level in the days and months after the event, according to the World Economic Forum.

Drones are just one way that agencies obtain real-time information. Many organizations are also tapping into social media monitoring and crisis mapping, for example, to augment information they’ve received from official sources. Responders connect to these platforms on the go via mobile devices, taking advantage of incoming data feeds to make better decisions.

Solving the connectivity conundrum for emergency technology

Collecting data during a disaster is essential — conditions can change quickly, so it’s important to keep all parties up to date with these changes. But agencies also need to be able to access, analyze, and share that information quickly. This is why reliable connectivity is so important. However, this has long proved a challenge for all sorts of emergency responders since smoke, wind, storms, and water can all hinder telecommunications.

Fortunately, this is an area in which first responder technologies are making serious inroads. Some companies are experimenting with  low-mesh networks, which use radio frequencies to transmit data between mobile devices, instead of relying on cable solutions.

Panasonic recently worked with PAR Government, which provides situational awareness software to government agencies. We integrated their cloud-hosted TAK situational awareness capability, TeamConnect by PAR, with our Android handheld, the TOUGHBOOK N1 Tactical. This enables first responders and other users to see the movement of their team members in real-time, share data, and remain connected.

The TOUGHBOOK N1 Tactical is also ready for whatever disaster responders might be facing — it works in the rain and bright sun, has a field-replaceable 12-hour battery, and several quick launch application buttons so that users can get what they need instantly. 

The Internet of Things is also starting to factor into disaster response plans. Government agencies have started to use IoT sensor data combined with emergency communications systems to provide responders and citizens with directives. The Harvard Business Review provides the example of an individual texting an emergency response number about how to avoid a flood. Based on information from IoT sensors an automated response can be sent back to the individual and their community on the action to take to reach safety.  

The automated response uses sensor data regarding floodwaters to direct the person where to go. But again, connectivity between the sensors and the software system is essential.

An ounce of prevention

Mobile technology is helping organizations prepare their disaster response and even limit natural disaster damage. In Japan, transportation agencies rely on a system of connected seismometers that predict potential earthquakes. The software then forecasts the anticipated effect and sends out warning signals to cut power to trains. The technology doesn’t prevent earthquakes, but it does reduce damage and save lives if one does occur.

Emergency responders will continue to face natural disasters — their frequency and severity may not be in our control. But advances in mobile technology combined with improvements in data collection and connectivity empowers organizations to enhance their response, keep their employees safe, and reduce the negative impacts.

Learn more about Panasonic solutions for First Responders, and how we are innovating with other technology partners to accelerate the use of technology to improve disaster response.