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S.D. exercises demonstrate technology that could aid police during disasters

By Bruce Lieberman
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — In two separate exercises in the county yesterday, emergency crews faced grim and very different crises.

At UC San Diego, police, firefighters, paramedics, SWAT teams and others were called to a simulated terrorist attack at an academic building. There were numerous injuries, a chemical spill and a struggle to retake the building.

Near Lindbergh Field, a simulated humanitarian crisis was unfolding as a global pandemic was overtaking San Diego and a cyber-attack had knocked out cell phone and Internet communications across the United States.

Two emergencies, different in scope and severity, had created a shortage in one invaluable commodity: information.

But not for long.

New wireless communication technologies and other innovations had people quickly on line – talking with each other, managing the emergencies and caring for patients.

Five years after 9/11, one year after Hurricane Katrina, and in the midst of continued crises in Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur and elsewhere, first responders and humanitarian workers rely heavily on their ability to communicate on the ground – frequently in harsh, dangerous and isolated terrain.

In New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, spotty radio communication among emergency workers proved deadly when the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed. In Banda Aceh and elsewhere in Southeast Asia after the Sumatra earthquake and tsunami, relief workers were overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of dispossessed, injured and dead people.

Robert Kirkpatrick, a Microsoft employee who specializes in developing computer software used by humanitarian workers, summed up the need for communications in disaster zones.

“Even if you have all the right people, and all the right equipment and all the right supplies and all the good will in the world, we don't do as good a job as we might because information does not get disseminated to all of the organizations working,” Kirkpatrick said.

“Organizations stream in, they don't know who is doing what where, you have lots of redundancy, you have lots of inefficiency, you have lots of misinformation, (and) time passes when time shouldn't be passing.”

The exercise at Lindbergh Field, which began Monday and ends Saturday, is less an exercise than a demonstration of how new computer technologies can work better in a humanitarian crisis, said SDSU professor Eric Rasmussen, director of this week's event and a Navy physician who has worked around the world to improve military and civilian responses to humanitarian crises.

This week's event, called Strong Angel III, is being hosted by San Diego State University and includes a broad range of corporate sponsors, humanitarian and relief agencies, government groups and universities.

The office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense contributed $200,000 to the event, but equipment and in-kind donations, such as computers and wireless communications technology, are expected to be valued between $30 million and $35 million, Rasmussen said.

Companies participating in Strong Angel III include Microsoft, Bell Canada, Cisco Systems, Sprint, Nextel and Google, among others. Other participants include the Naval Postgraduate School, the U.S. Department of Defense and the humanitarian group Save the Children.

Participants began the week faced with a brief scenario of a pandemic complicated by a nationwide crash of wireless communications.

By yesterday, they had established a command post in an abandoned building at the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department training facility, at the west end of the airport. The operation was running on its own power, lighting and cell phone and computer networks.

Sitting at tables with row after row of laptop computers, groups of workers tackled a variety of tasks to establish communications and improve links between groups that would respond in a real event.

At one point in the day, communications began to crash but technicians isolated the problem and the system was restored, Rasmussen said. The problem was typical of real-life events, and solving it will prove to be one of many valuable lessons learned this week.

At UCSD, the simulated terrorist attack required a much more focused approach to managing a crisis. The goal at the university was to test several new high-tech tools designed specifically to better manage emergency medical care in a disaster zone.

About 200 people, including emergency room physicians, nurses and technicians from UCSD Medical Center, participated in yesterday's exercise.

Ramesh Rao, an engineer at UCSD and a lead investigator on the project, said the high-tech tools the university developed are critically needed.

“The most important part of the story is just how far behind first responders are relative to the military in terms of absorbing technology,” Rao said.

“They use methods that are 30 to 40 years old. They hardly use anything that's based on the developments that have taken place in the last 10 to 15 years – in (computer) processing, display and storage.”

The $4 million project, called Wireless Internet Information System for Medical Response in Disasters, or WIISARD, marked the culmination of three years of collaboration between university engineers and police, firefighters and paramedics.

“It could revolutionize the way an incident like this would run,” San Diego Fire Department Capt. Kyle Passini said of the new high-tech tools. “It eliminates radio traffic, which is always a good thing.”

The National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, funded the WIISARD project. It is one of a handful of similar projects around the country. The WIISARD technologies were developed at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, located at UCSD, in partnership with UCSD's School of Medicine.

Some of the high-tech tools they used included:

Electronic tags on patients in the disaster zone that recorded their vital signs and continually broadcast their conditions to paramedics in the disaster area, a command post nearby, and area hospitals.

Hand-held computers that paramedics used in the field to enter information about the conditions of patients and track medications they received.

Tablet personal computers used by supervisors in the field who acted as links between paramedics and officials at the command center.

A computerized command center that tracked the locations of all patients and emergency workers, steered first responders away from hazardous sites in the disaster zone and directed the transport of victims to area hospitals.

University engineers collaborated with firefighters, paramedics and police officers to develop the new tools, Rao said.

“From the very beginning it was clear that we couldn't design new systems in a vacuum,” he said.

Copyright 2008 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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