5.23 – Emergency Response: the science of how we deal with disasters

Host Walter Isaacson and guests explore how history, modern technology and even personal experiences inform how we respond to emergencies today.
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In this episode:

  • Firestarter (0:00)
  • Living on the edge (4:21)
  • Shocks to society (6:43)
  • Tech of the trade (10:43)
  • Simulations and solutions (14:22)
  • Small robots, big results (20:07)
  • From exploration to innovation (24:20)

Emergency Response timelineFrom controlling flooding along the Nile in ancient Egypt to changing building codes after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, humans have responded to disasters with innovation and ingenuity. Today government agencies, researchers and even explorers are developing new ways to mount effective emergency responses. What inspired them and what could their solutions mean for society? Find out on this episode of Trailblazers.

Respond well to this episode? Check out these links for more:

“It is one of the most basic responsibilities of government to be there for their citizens in their time of need, during disasters.”

— Craig Fugate, former FEMA administrator

Guest List

  • emergency response Ahmad Wani is the CEO and Co-Founder of One Concern, a Resilience as a Service solution provider that brings disaster science together with machine learning for better decision making. A native of Kashmir, India, Ahmad was inspired to create One Concern, having personally experienced the devastating impact of disasters on his family and community in India.
  • emergency response Craig Fugate served as President Barack Obama’s FEMA Administrator from May 2009 to January 2017. Fugate led FEMA through multiple record-breaking disaster years and oversaw the Federal Government’s response to major events such as the Joplin and Moore Tornadoes, Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Matthew, and the 2016 Louisiana flooding.
  • emergency Robin R. Murphy is the Raytheon Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University, a director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue, an AAAS, ACM and IEEE Fellow, and founder of the field of disaster robotics. She has deployed robots to over 30 disasters including the 9/11 World Trade Center, Fukushima, and Hurricane Harvey.
  • emergency Matthew Hannaford is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Lincoln, UK. He is co-author of the book Disasters and History, which offers the first comprehensive historical overview of hazards and disasters.
  • emergency Sam Cossman is the CEO and Co-Founder of Qwake Technologies, creator of C-THRU, a next-generation visual communication and navigation system. The need for a safer and more effective means of coordinating teams in austere environments was partially born out of his own necessity while leading a scientific expedition inside an active volcano.

Walter Isaacson:

It’s the evening of October 8th, 1871 in Chicago, and an Irish immigrant named Catherine O’Leary is in her barn tending to her cow Daisy. O’Leary is milking Daisy like she has many times before when all of a sudden Daisy kicks over a near lantern. The flame from the lantern explodes and a fire quickly spreads throughout the barn. Or so the legend goes. Historians are unclear how that fire began, but one thing they do know about that fateful night is that this barn fire had devastating consequences for the city of Chicago.

Walter Isaacson:

The initial response by the fire department is quick. But by the time they realize they’ve been sent to the wrong address, the fire has spread to neighboring homes. Then pushed by the winds of the windy city, the fire hops across the south branch of the Chicago River. Soon, the city center is engulfed in flames. Then, the fire jumps the river again, this time on the north side of the city, further complicating an already disastrous fire that Chicago’s 185 exhausted firefighters are desperately trying to control. Unfortunately, for those battling the blaze and the people of Chicago, things are about to get even worse. A burning piece of lumber lands on the roof of the city’s waterworks, engulfing it in flames and cutting off their water supply. From this point on, all the firefighters can do is watch as one third of Chicago burns to the ground. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed 17,500 buildings and 73 miles of street. 90,000 people, about one third of Chicago’s population at the time were left homeless. And while only 120 bodies were recovered, it’s believed that at least 300 people died in the blaze.

Walter Isaacson:

But for all the death and destruction that came out of this tragic event, there was one silver lining in an attempt to prevent a disaster like this from ever happening again, city officials passed a law, mandating the use of fireproof materials such as brick stone and terra cotta for the city’s rebuild. By the mid 1880s, thanks to the Great Fire of 1871, Chicago became one of the most fireproof cities in the nation.

Walter Isaacson:

Today, efforts in the field of disaster prevention and response cost 280 billion worldwide, yet disasters of all kinds continue to cause more than 60,000 deaths every year. And this number is rising as climate change continues to make disasters more frequent and severe. But with great threat comes great innovation. And from the early attempts to build a fireproof city, innovators have continued to create extraordinary ways to respond and predict the world’s deadly disasters.

Walter Isaacson:

I’m Walter Isaacson and this is Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.

Speaker 2:

Where yesterday, Florida-friendly river, today a day of flood.

Speaker 3:

The emergency control center is swinging into action.

Speaker 2:

Volunteers and WPA workers labored heroically to rescue thousands marooned by the rising waters.

Speaker 4:

Many more homes would be burned and many more people would be hurt and killed if our city firefighters were not always on the job.

Walter Isaacson:

History provides few milestones as dramatic as disasters. In fact, we tend to mark our own past by remembering where we were when certain disasters struck because it seems no matter where humans have settled, disasters have always been quick to follow.

Matthew Hannaford:

I think to begin to understand the science of disasters, we need to consider some basic but fundamental questions. And first among these is why people choose to live in hazardous places.

Walter Isaacson:

This is Matthew Hannaford, he’s a co-author of Disaster and History: The Vulnerability and Resilience of Past Societies.

Matthew Hannaford:

It’s worth remembering that many places we might think of objectively as risky such as flood plains, such as coastal areas, are also places with abundant food resources, abundant livelihood opportunities, and also fertile land. So if we look at ancient Egypt, for example, the river Nile constituted basically an oasis corridor through a thinly-inhabited desert.

Walter Isaacson:

Ancient Egyptians needed the Nile, but yearly monsoons often cause flooding, decimating homes, crops, and livestock. To survive, they had to learn to control these catastrophic floods and their attempts led to some of humanity’s earliest innovations in disaster prediction and response.

Matthew Hannaford:

One of the early tools at the forefront of this was artificial irrigation. This was characterized by fairly simple technology such as the creation of artificial river channels to direct floodwater away from the main river channel into fields that could not be reached by the normal floods. In later periods, this also involved the raising of water through hand-operated and animal-driven water lifting devices so that water could be removed from the main channel and into other fields. These technologies increased the area of annual cropland and also allowed the retention of water in the basins after the floods.

Walter Isaacson:

While the Nile’s predictability helped Egyptian innovators prepare for the inevitable, most disasters take cities by surprise. And there are few natural disasters as difficult to predict as earthquakes.

Matthew Hannaford:

The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was one of the most destructive seismic disasters in pre-industrial times. And hot upon its heels were fires. And also a large tsunami. Two thirds of Lisbon was left uninhabitable, and this was alongside a death toll of around 30,000 in Lisbon itself.

Walter Isaacson:

The Lisbon earthquake remains one of the deadliest in history, but the city’s response likely saved countless lives all over the world by giving birth to modern seismology technology and earthquake engineering.

Matthew Hannaford:

A key figure here was the Marques de Pombal, the Portuguese Prime Minister, who was almost the personification of enlightenment and godlessness. De Pombal was dismayed by the attempts of ecclesiastic commentators to inflate the number of dead to fit with their narrative of divine retribution.

Walter Isaacson:

The belief that disasters were God’s way of punishing sinners was very popular before the Lisbon earthquake, but de Pombal decided to remove God from the equation entirely. He insisted on analyzing disasters using factual observation and statistics in line with the enlightenment ideas that were sweeping Europe at the time. If disasters were acts of nature or human folly and not unavoidable punishments from the almighty, de Pombal realized their effects could be reduced with careful preparation. And that’s what he set out to do.

Matthew Hannaford:

Beyond the immediate response to the disaster, the recovery from the earthquake also involved a high degree of central coordination by the state. This included a complete re-planning of the city and the introduction of new construction techniques which increased the elasticity of houses while new streets were made straight and wide enough to reduce potential future earthquake damage.

Walter Isaacson:

One of de Pombal’s greatest innovations still bears his name, the Pombalina cage. It’s a timber frame structure within a home designed to sway with seismic forces, allowing it to withstand small- to medium-sized earthquakes. Today, de Pombal’s innovations are recognized as some of the earliest efforts to plan for disaster with urban design and his unified government response is still studied by governments today.

Craig Fugate:

It is one of the most basic responsibility of government to be there for their citizens in their time of need during disasters.

Walter Isaacson:

This is Craig Fugate, he was the FEMA administrator from 2009 to 2017. FEMA or America’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, is responsible for getting federal aid to states when disaster strikes. Fugate brought a guiding principle to FEMA’s disaster response that he learned from his years as a paramedic. And that principle is, speed matters. When he began in 2009, FEMA was spending days assessing disasters to determine what the scope of their response should be. Fugate’s instinct was to assume that a disaster was bad, respond accordingly, then reassess later. It was a strategy not appreciated by everyone.

Craig Fugate:

I met a lot of resistance at FEMA because the concern was we’re going to over-respond and it is going to be considered wasteful. I’m like, there’s two types of hearings we’re going to go to. The hearings you’re going to go to are where they’re yelling at you because you sent too much stuff and it was wasteful. Or the hearings you’re going to are where they’re yelling at you where people died and didn’t get help because you were still waiting on more information. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather get yelled at for going too fast with too much.

Walter Isaacson:

But still with tax dollars involved, Fugate needed to find a balance between assessment and response. So he turned a curious eye to a technology that in 2010 was not yet on the US government’s disaster response radar, social media.

Craig Fugate:

I was told, well, that’s not going to be official information. You can’t trust it. It’s going to be all kinds of bad information, which we see. I said, but I also know that in the beginning, a lot of that raw information is actually pretty good intel. If we encourage people to share that with us, it can help us frame and shape our response.

Walter Isaacson:

Social media was still in its infancy, but Fugate saw its untapped potential to save lives.

Craig Fugate:

I was at FEMA and I used this example to explain to my folks why I was using social media. I get a phone call in the middle of the night. We’ve had a fire and an explosion in California, San Bruno. So I roll over on my nightstand, grab my phone, go to Twitter, and I just hashtag San Bruno. Well guess what? There’s all kinds of information coming up, including the local TV station had tweeted their newsfeed. So I clicked on the newsfeed and they had a helicopter sitting off in the distance shooting a long range camera in to where of fire is. And I’m looking at the fire and going, well, this is a gas pipeline. I realize it’s bad. There’s homes on fire, stuff like that. But I’m like, this is California. They’ll handle it. So, I went to bed.

Craig Fugate:

I get up next morning, I go in and they’re still going on about this fire and they don’t know what caused it. I said it’s a gas pipeline explosion. And so, we started teaching people how to do that, how to hashtag, what sources to look at, and really move into a what I call instead of being passive and waiting for somebody to tell us something was going wrong, was monitor.

Walter Isaacson:

As social media grew and turned into an indispensable tool for disaster response, another technology with the potential to decrease response times appeared on Fugate’s radar. It’s called GIS or geographic information systems. But GIS technology’s original purpose had nothing to do with disaster response or prevention. It was first used to inventory Canada’s vast natural resources. But Fugate saw its potential. GIS is computer mapping software that uses an interface between computers and satellite imagery to allow geographers to map the Earth’s terrain.

Craig Fugate:

Three dimensional mapping. Think about it. You have satellite information. You have the traditional roadmap information. You have census data. This idea of geospatial gives us the ability to look at not just a flat paper map with lines on it, but data within there. Terrain, other types of things, you can now take 3D imagery and do things like called the heat map of where’s population density. The higher the density, the redder the map is, that show where concentrations of people are. This powerful tool meant we didn’t have to wait for the event to occur to find out how bad it could be.

Walter Isaacson:

This new wealth of readily-available frontline data revolutionized disaster response. FEMA could now predict and assess the scope of damage by looking at GIS maps and quickly generate an appropriate response. GIS technology was a game changer for disaster prediction and response and it’s a source of inspiration for another mapping system that has improved the way we respond to disasters.

Ahmed Wani:

Basically, I’m an earthquake engineered by training and entrepreneur by complete accident.

Walter Isaacson:

This is Ahmed Wani, co-founder and CEO of One Concern. They use digital simulations to understand the potential risks and impacts of disasters. When Wani was 17, his hometown of Kashmir was hit by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake that killed 80,000 people and displaced more than three million. After that event, he decided to devote his life to learning how engineering solutions could help during natural disasters. In 2014, Wani was in the US finishing his masters before starting his Ph.D. in earthquake engineering. After finishing his Masters, he went home to visit family in Kashmir, India, when disaster struck again.

Ahmed Wani:

Basically it was almost in the middle of the night when the flood started. In 15 to 20 minutes, 85% of the city got flooded and the waters started to come all the way from the first floor to the second floor. We were probably one of the most luckiest people to be in the right place and we had a strong house. But many, many people, their houses got washed away in the flood. So this, we were talking about millions of people getting washed away and flooded. The catastrophic nature of this was caused by a lot of water accumulating upstream in the dam, and then the dam broke.

Walter Isaacson:

When the waters eventually receded, more than 500 people had perished across Northern India and Pakistan, and thousands of villages were impacted, many of which were completely submerged.

Ahmed Wani:

This is the first time a flood has happened in a sanctuary in Kashmir. Since 2014, we’ve had three more floods, almost big floods. So it was clear that this is an urgent problem where I could potentially help.

Walter Isaacson:

Climate change means that the potential for floods is likely here to stay, so Wani decided to find a way to make the communities in harms way more resilient. He knew from watching real time GIS maps that during a disaster buildings connected to electrical lines or water mains had a much greater impact on the community if there is a flood, fire, or earthquake. In fact, some buildings struck by disaster can cause destructive ripples up to a hundred miles away. It became clear that mapping these infrastructure lines was critical to containing disasters and preventing destructive ripples from spreading. But GIS maps don’t show all the ripples. Things like sewage systems, cables, and pipes are buried underground, away from the prying eyes of satellites. So, One Concern set out on the enormous task of creating city maps so detailed that it’s literally a digital twin of the city itself.

Ahmed Wani:

Once we have the digital twin of a city, you can break that digital twin through an earthquake, a hurricane, or any climate scenario. And now you can see those ripple effects, second, third, and fourth order effects. And, our product, One Concern Domino visualizes these domino effects. It kind of looks like SIM City where you are walking through increasing intensities of a flood or a wind or an earthquake, and you are seeing different things go out, the lights going out, the roads going out, the ports shutting down, the airports shutting down, and then you can make decisions accordingly.

Walter Isaacson:

Decisions that save lives.

Ahmed Wani:

One of our main deployments has been in the city of Kumamoto in western Japan. They’re struggling with this idea that since they have been giving many evacuation alarms to the community, now the residents have stopped listening. What has happened is that when there is an actually a large event, folks don’t evacuate. Then ultimately, in a couple of years back, they had a couple of hundred people die because just nobody paid attention to the evacuation notification.

Walter Isaacson:

With One Concern Domino, officials can now predict which residential neighborhoods will flood in the next 12 hours or the next 24 hours, allowing them to evacuate only the most critical areas, reducing false alarms, and increasing civilian trust. And as innovators like Wani create technologies that help us predict disasters with digital twins, other trailblazers are building new ways to save lives on the ground after the storm.

Robin Murphy:

I got into the field of disaster robotics accidentally. I grew up as a kid during the space age. I thought I was going to be one of those engineers on a wagon wheel space station. That sort of thing.

Walter Isaacson:

This is Robin Murphy. She’s a computer scientist and a pioneer in the field of disaster robotics.

Robin Murphy:

Then, 1995 happened. We had the Kobe earthquake and the Oklahoma city bombing. In looking at those two disasters, it was so clear that small robots, not these big gargantuan bomb squad robots that we had back in the day, the small robots that everyone was talking about using for the Mars project, those were the way to go. That was so badly needed, and so that’s what I started doing.

Walter Isaacson:

One of the very first in the field, Murphy and her team set out to create three kinds of robots to use during disaster response: ground robots, underwater robots, and aerial vehicles.

Robin Murphy:

Ground robots are typically used to go into spaces. Things like rubble that people and dogs can’t get into. So the majority of the time, it’s been for structural collapses. That was the first use, which was at the World Trade Center. It’s just too wildly unsafe for a human to be into.

Walter Isaacson:

Then, there are underwater robots. They are primarily used for critical underwater infrastructure inspection.

Robin Murphy:

Let’s think about Haiti, the Haiti earthquake. It’s impossible to feed a country with one small airport. So you’ve got to start getting relief supplies and you’ve got to get the responders. You don’t know if your shipping channels have shifted. You don’t know what debris is in there. You don’t even know if the ports are still intact. This is where underwater vehicles come in.

Walter Isaacson:

And finally, there are aerial vehicles like drones.

Robin Murphy:

So, aerial vehicles on some degree, they’re replacing helicopters in manned aviation. The advantage is that they can go lower and look lower. But the real advantage is the cost. There was a study that said, look, it cost about $3,000 an hour to get a manned helicopter in a disaster; about $25 for a drone. So already, now you’re talking about something that can fly next to buildings, fly into buildings.

Walter Isaacson:

But creating these complex machines has taken decades of hard work and perfecting them will take decades more.

Robin Murphy:

One of the problems with disaster robotics is that it’s really, really hard. It’s not just coming up with a new form of ability that can burrow in and move around the rubble or things like that. It’s got to be that, but it’s also got to be smaller and it’s got to work in mud, and it’s got to carry sensors. And those sensors have to work when there’s smoke and particulate and dust that’s still in the void from the collapse. They’ve got to be good at a lot of things. This is harder than military operations. In some sense, in some degrees, it’s even harder than doing a Mars mission.

Walter Isaacson:

The hard work of Murphy and the roboticists that came after her have come with massive payoffs in the field of disaster response. In 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, it triggered a catastrophic meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, resulting in radiation levels high enough to kill a potential responder in just seconds. The Japanese responded by sending disaster robots that could fly, climb, and even swim into reactors flooded with water to help assess the situation.

Walter Isaacson:

But sometimes the only way to deal with disasters is to send in first responders.

Sam Cossman:

Since I was a little boy, I have been drawn to the places of the edge of the map that were not fully explored. It’s just, I think, a part of my personality, and I’ve always been drawn to these kind of lesser-known areas.

Walter Isaacson:

This is Sam Cossman, the CEO and founder of Qwake Technologies. Qwake Technologies are the creators of C-Thru, a helmet-mounted device that uses computer vision and augmented reality to help firefighters navigate dangerous environments. Cossman got the idea for C-Thru through when he willingly put himself in a potentially disastrous situation while exploring a volcano.

Sam Cossman:

I descended into about 1,200 feet into the crater. At the center of it was one of the world’s only lava lakes. We were attempting to install sensors so that we could use machine learning to identify patterns that had previously not been seen before which would potentially be precursors to predicting eruptions. In the process of doing that, as I was approaching the edge of the crater overlooking this ocean of lava, this enormous burst of gas came out of a nearby crater and essentially blinded me. That was one of the first times I had been deprived of a critical sense that was essential to my safety.

Walter Isaacson:

Luckily, the gas eventually cleared and Cossman and his team were able to safely exit the volcano. But this experience stayed with him, and was the start of his search for a technology that could prevent that terrifying moment from ever happening again. During his research, Cossman came across thermal imaging cameras, devices used by firefighters to see through smoke. But these large handheld cameras often get in the way more than they help. The more research he did, the more he realized that these brave first responders were getting left in the dark.

Sam Cossman:

So one thing that I was very surprised to learn before I got more ensconced in the fire industry was that today in this modern times with self-driving cars and robotic surgical tools, firefighters who have among the most difficult jobs out there are saving victims and saving themselves by going into structures and literally closing their eyes so they can commit what they’re feeling with their hands in this blind environment to their memory, and listening to the sounds of crying babies or screaming victims so they can navigate to them to save them.

Walter Isaacson:

Cossman and his team set out to turn on the lights for firefighters. C-Thru uses augmented reality to superimpose a virtual image of what responders would see in a room if there was no smoke. The image is seen through a transparent display right in front of the eye.

Sam Cossman:

That might appear as just green lines, kind of like The Matrix, if you’ve seen that movie before, where you would see a green outline of a door or a red outline of a human or a green outline of a window. Just the shapes and contours, that was enough information to quickly discern where an individual is, where the threats are, where their targets are for that require their attention, and to rapidly deliver that information in an actionable way.

Walter Isaacson:

Cossman is seeing great results with C-Thru during training exercises and he expects a C-Thru helmet to be in the field by 2023.

Sam Cossman:

Most recently, we hosted a pilot program with Boston Fire Department and the Department of Homeland Security. We took the technology into actual live fire environments and we conducted some tests to see how effective the tool could be. We compared it to using nothing to using handheld thermal imaging cameras, and to what it was like using our system C-Thru. What we found was that individuals who were going into a zero visibility environment that had been filled with real smoke and real fire, who were endeavoring to find a downed victim, were able to do so over 200% faster with the use of C-Thru, and that’s a very exciting thing to be a part of now.

Walter Isaacson:

We’ve not seen the end of the disasters. And if the last few years are any indication, further climate change will likely make things worse. But just like the 185 firefighters who battled the great Chicago fire of 1871 and the city officials who mandated the use of fireproof building materials following the blaze, humans have always found a way to fight back against disasters. And now, trailblazers in the field of disaster science working from that same basic human instinct to save lives, are giving us a fighting chance. I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. If you’d like to learn more about the guests on today’s episode, please visit delltechnologies.com/trailblazers. Thanks for listening.