PUC Team Unveils High-Tech Disaster Management System


An article written by Lauri Harvey Keagle, NWI Times, published in the NWI Times on  December 4, 2013

A Purdue University professor and her students have partnered with local emergency responders to develop a state-of-the-art system for managing disasters using the 2008 Munster flood as a model.

Local leaders hope the project can be used as a model for disaster response at the state or national level.

“We have a fully functional prototype right now,” said Barbara Nicolai, associate professor of computer information technology.

Since 2005, Nicolai has led a team of undergrads, graduate students and faculty in developing the system in the classroom.

Nicolai started working on the project after Hurricane Katrina.

“When Katrina hit, there was a sense of helplessness … because technologically, we weren’t where we are today,” Nicolai said.

Nicolai and her team are working with the Northwest Indiana Information Center Users Group for Homeland Security, led by Munster Police Chief Steve Scheckel.

“We know we could probably handle a local emergency with this,” Scheckel said. “Once we can load-test this, we know we could use it at the state level if not the national level.”

Scheckel said he and Newton County Emergency Management Director Raymond Chambers are going to Indianapolis soon to show leaders “what Purdue has accomplished and hopefully use that in the whole state. That would be our goal.”

Nicolai said emergency responders now use telephones to communicate with partners and one another. Her system is computer-generated and -managed, allowing responders to receive and send requests for assistance from public and private sources as well as residents.

In the worst-case scenario, she said, the system can be used and managed from a tablet.

Emergency coordinators also can order needed equipment and supplies — such as sandbags, water, generators and pumps — from FEMA-reimbursable vendors using the system and dispatch them, rerouting in real time as needed if roads are closed because of the disaster.

Dr. Ge Jin, assistant professor of computer graphic technology, said optimal routes can be found within one minute for Munster and Hammond and 15 minutes for all of Lake County.

Residents and other stakeholders also can upload images from smart phones that are superimposed on Google Earth satellite images to provide real-time data from affected sites.

3D imaging also provides real data on typography and structures.

Real-life lessons

In the case of the 2008 flood, most communities worked independently with few operations centers working together, Scheckel said. His group is trying to change that with the creation of one large e-operations center that partners with PUC, the public and the private sector.

Scheckel said the leaders did not realize until after the flood, how much the private sector was affected.

“The expressway was closed for a week, and U.S. Steel couldn’t get goods in and products out,” Scheckel said. “They lost millions.”

Scheckel said he also learned after the floods how private businesses could have helped.

“We needed pumps and ran out and we were frantically looking for pumps,” he said. “A certain corporation said, ‘Why didn’t you call us? We had a warehouse full.’ “

Nicolai said she is not concerned about the system being operational if cell towers or power goes out.

“We’ve seen in Haiti and other disasters that satellites have changed the idea of the mobile unit,” she said. “We used to think of it as an ambulance. Now, it can be a person with a backpack or on a donkey.”

The system is scalable for city, county and state use but has yet to be load-tested for larger populations. Those tests are in the works, Nicolai said. 

Nicolai hopes to go live with a pilot program in Munster next semester.

“This is available, but it’s not out there yet,” she said. “It’s my obligation to get this out there as fast as I can.”