Wireless handheld computing is evolving as the emergency manager's answer
to obtaining real-time intelligence from the field.A recent live demonstration
of the latest technologies sheds some light on technology that works and
technologies needing more work.
The iTalk rapid damage assessment
application running on HP Jornada and SideArm handheld PCs.
We find that
most emergency mangers we have spoken to agree that too much time is spent
manually logging information into databases in the Emergency Operation
Center.Affordable and effective wireless handheld technologies and applications
allow the incident commander and field personnel to capture and communicate
information to EOC's in near real-time.This technology shows great promise
in helping to reduce double entry of data and freeing the emergency manager
to focus on coordinating response and recovery activities and resources.
On March 25,
2002, Natural Resources Canada sponsored a project to test the latest in
wireless and mobile technologies to address three important elements of
an enhanced disaster management information system:
Rapid Collection and Real-time Communication
of Disaster Information - using a catastrophic earthquake scenario
and a Rapid Damage Assessment application, test use ofhandheld computing
devices to collect and communicate building damage data for 'near real-time'
display on an emergency management mapping system located in an operations
Wireless Communications - multi-mode
wireless data transmission options to keep data flowing between field and
EOC personnel, including use of affordable and broadly-used wireless networks
such as CDPD (cellular packet), GSM/GPRS (radio packet) and MSAT (satellite);
Spatial Decision Support Applications
- integrate data from multiple GIS (electronic) mapping systems and overlay
predicted and actual (field) data in near real-time.
was to demonstrate sharing of critical data across multiple distributed
systems used by multiple emergency organizations in an open systems environment.
products used in the demonstration were:
- Rapid Damage Assessment (RDA) Application.This handheld computer
application developed by EMIS Technologies Inc.was used to collect and
communicate geo-referenced building damage data based on ATC-20.The data
was synchronized with a database repository in the EOC and quickly displayed
on the emergency management mapping applications.The application is tailored
for building damage assessments but is currently being extended to allow
assessment of any critical infrastructure and incorporate daily-use application
for emergency responders.
3.2 with theEM-Tools Earthquake Hazard Model.A hazard model developed
by Lookfar Solutions Inc.generates predicted damage maps based on Modified
Mercalli Index (MMI) and Peak Ground Acceleration (PGA) to help responders
prioritize assessment areas and response/recovery activities.As actual
building damage information begins to come in from the field, color-coded
icons representing building placards are overlaid on the predicted damage
data to produce an increasingly accurate account of damage.Three types
of output can be displayed on maps: building status (placard posting),
extent of dollar loss, and indicators of possible number of people at risk.
These damage map 'layers' were also
being displayed 'real-time' and in their native formats over the City of
Vancouver's existing web-based GIS system (using AutoDesk MapGuide)
Web-based Reporting.Crystal Reports, a web-based reporting
tool, was used to publish damage summary reports in formats useful to the
desktop (EOC) users and the handheld (field) users.
tested in the demonstration were:
- Mitsubishi ST111 Mobile Satellite
- Garmin GPS V (http://www.garmin.com/products/gps5/).
- HP Jornada 720 Pocket PC running
Windows CE and SQL CE.
- Melard SideArm Ruggedized Handheld
- Microsoft SQL 2000 Server.
Results and 'Lessons Learned'
was used as a learning experience for all of the stakeholders, observers
and industry participants.The vast majority of participants surveyed after
the demonstration felt the technologies demonstrated were feasible and
likely to be adopted by their organizations; however, there were some shortcomings
noted and many suggestions for expanding the applications for day-to-day
use.This is a synopsis of our findings:
Rapid Damage Assessment using
The "ergonomics" of most handheld devices need improvements:
screen display washes out in bright
screen displays on the handheld devices
were wide enough to accommodate the ATC-20 form layout but other Pocket
PC and Palm devices lacked the screen real estate to be considered a viable
option for this particular application;
'ruggedized' and 'weather-proof' devices,
like the Melard SideArm device tested, will be required for most field
many handheld devices lack sufficient
integrated components and ports to enable simultaneous operation of multiple
input/output devices, such as GPS and multiple communications cards (expansion
devices help but add to the 'clutter');
the HP Jornada's integrated keyboard
was useful for the small amount of data entry required in the ATC-20 forms,
whereas many other handheld devices rely on a 'pop-up keyboard' that hides
1/3 of the display screen.External keyboards are not likely to be used
by an inspector while assessing a building.
Several extensions were suggested to allow the data collection application
to be used on a daily basis.Daily-use applications must be integrated with,
or added to, applications like rapid damage assessment to ensure field
workers can use it and the cost of the device is justified;
The enterprise database (SQL 2000) must be integrated with existing corporate
databases (e.g.building records database) to avoid storing and maintaining
data in more than one place.
shows that terrestrial communications networks will likely be impacted
or not available for several hours or even days following a catastrophic
event. Therefore, any field data collection
and communication solution must be able to work with multiple, widely available
wireless networks.We tested sending building assessment reports from a
field device (HP Jornada) to EOC server (running Microsoft SQL 2000 Database)
using TCP/IP over a 19.2 KBPS CDPD (cellular digital packet), 56 KBPS GSM/GPRS
(packet radio) and 4.6 KBPS MSAT (satellite) networks.Data was captured
into a SQL CE database on the handheld device and then synchronized with
a SQL 2000 Enterprise server located in the Vancouver EOC.
is a commonly used cellular network for data communications but coverage
is weak in rural areas and the network will likely be damaged or over-loaded
immediately after a catastrophic event.This wireless network was tested
because it is commonly used to support day-to-day data communications between
field personnel and their departmental servers.The CDPD network may also
become available after a catastrophic event when rapid damage assessments
are being performed, so we tested CDPD as a first-tier wireless network
used a Sierra Wireless AirCard® with the Jornada.Tests showed that
data transmission over CDPD was reliable and efficient.Existing CDPD network
speed is rated at a respectable 19.2 KBPS and our new building assessment
records were sent (synchronized) with the server database within 37 seconds.
Downloading over 1100 building records to the handheld took roughly 4 minutes
is a relatively new, integrated wireless voice and "always-on" high-speed
(56 KBPS) packet data service.GPRS is a packet radio based service and
was tested as a potential first or second-tier wireless network solution.
Coverage for GSM/GPRS service is planned to be equivalent or better than
current analog cell phone coverage.
GSM/GPRS capable cellular phone (Motorola P280) was connected to the handheld
device via a serial cable purchased with the phone.This combination offers
the field worker multi-tasking voice and data communications capabilities.
It would have been preferable to use an integrated GSM/GPRS capable card
like Sierra Wireless' AirCard® 750 (the first Tri-band GSM/GPRS wireless
network card).However, this card was not generally available in time for
showed a great deal of network latency when synchronizing data from the
handheld device and the enterprise server.A new building assessment record
took just under 3 minutes to synchronize with the server database; however,
displaying the Damage Report web page was much quicker (20-30 seconds).
EMIS Technologies has since found a solution to minimize this latency that
appears related in part to the way GPRS handles data packets during the
database synchronization process.
one of several satellite communication options available and was tested
as a potential third-tier network solution (in the event that CDPD and
GPRS are not available).A serial cable connected the handheld device to
a mobile satellite terminal and a dial-up (PPP) TCP/IP connection established
through a local application service provider (ASP).
testing proved challenging.We were surprised to discover that several
ASP's did not support a 4800 BPS connection; therefore, we had to set-up
a dedicated dial-up server at EMIS' office.Even though we were doing a
straightforward dial-up connection, we discovered that Windows CE registry
settings had to be changed to get the connection working (an undocumented
problem).Once connected, we were able to synchronize our damage assessment
data with the EOC server within 5 minutes.It is not a surprise that moving
data satellite is a slow option right now but during a catastrophic event,
there may be no better options and improvements are coming.
Real-time, Multi-vendor GIS Decision
GIS mapping applications worked extremely well and performance targets
were met.An automatic refresh utility kept the data display current, showing
both the predicted and actual building damage.A shared folder was set-up
on the enterprise server and an automated export utility implemented to
share output from the hazard model (shapefiles) across the network of EM/2000
emergency management software users.These shared files were also accessible
by Vancouver's GIS mapping system that quickly rendered the data as just
another layer on a map that was accessible by web browsers.The unique
feature of this web-based map server was its ability to read and combine
data from multiple competing GIS systems without any complex and time consuming
objective of this demonstration project was to test the ability of currently
available technologies to achieve the goal of sharing critical data across
multiple distributed systems used by multiple emergency organizations in
an open systems environment.The wireless rapid damage assessment and hazard
modeling applications demonstrated that this goal can best be met using
current industry-standard technology platforms and standard methodologies,
such as ATC-20, are adopted across multiple responding agencies.Handheld
devices and wireless networks are becoming more capable and affordable
every day; however, the old adage still applies: "Use the right tool for
Mike Morrow is president of EMIS
Technologies Inc., an emergency management technology consultant, based
in Vancouver, B.C.For the past fourteen years, Mike has helped in the
design, development, implementation, training and support of emergency
management information systems for EOC's around the world.His most recent
achievements were the implementation of a comprehensive emergency management
information system for the City of Vancouver and the B.C.Provincial Emergency
Program (using EM/2000) and a special events logging system for the G8
Summit Meeting in Banff, Alberta.To contact Mike, call (604) 688-4499
or visit www.emistech.com