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Insights from emergency simulations to improve disaster management

Technology Writer

Emergency simulations can't predict everything that might go wrong in a disaster, but they can help those on the front lines craft more effective disaster management strategies.

Though the stakes couldn't be higher during disasters, federal, state and local governments often neglect to explore disaster simulations because of the associated costs or their lack of faith in the programs. As storage and cloud computing prices continue to drop, however, prices are coming down, making simulations more palatable.

Government hesitation

In a recent interview, Disaster Preparedness Consultant Eric Holdeman explained there is currently little allocation for computer-based emergency simulations.

"Generally at the state and local level, the funding has not been there," he said. Holdeman believes that such modeling will become popular in the future, but the industry needs to overcome engrained thinking on the subject. Holdeman noted that it is often difficult to get senior officials on board with simulation projects, and one approach to changing their minds is to outline the potential economic impact on municipalities. The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disaster found that the estimated losses from natural disasters in 2014 was just shy of $100 billion, and this number is actually 39 percent lower than the average disaster-related economic losses between 2003 and 2013, according to ReliefWeb.

Using simulations for training

At one time, pushback might have been warranted because modeling technology was prohibitively expensive. However, the influx of cloud computing has brought costs way down. By employing a cloud-based distributed file system, officials have access to an infinite amount of data for emergency simulations to then improve emergency management. Thanks to machine learning, the systems only get better as more simulations are conducted.

With this type of technology, lessons from past exercises can be applied to the future. For instance, if a municipality models a disaster at a port, much of the modeling can likely be applied to other ports, assuming the model is based on accurate data. Open-source visualization libraries have provided game-like interfaces for first responders to experiment with, making disaster management training an interactive process.

Simulations are also being used more frequently to train first responders in regions that are prone to disaster, as the Disaster and Emergency Health Academy of Tehran University of Medical Sciences and Emergency did in Iran. According to PLOS, the group recently held a workshop for health workers and other first responders to teach them field-based and practical skills that would help them in the event of a disaster. The leaders of the workshop leveraged virtual simulation technology as part of the training and to run trial exercises with participants.

Visualization: The key to utility

Effective modeling employs data, models and visualization. The last aspect is often the most neglected piece of the puzzle, and it's also the most useful component in emergency simulations. According to a presentation at Ateneo de Manila University, students in the Phillipines, one of the countries most affected by natural disasters, tested a disaster simulation game developed by the United Nations. The video game featured five common hazards and recieved favorable reviews from 98 percent of participants. Such visualization not only helps responders better prepare for disasters, but it can also help convince government officials of the utility of such simulation programs.

The events that take place during an emergency are hard to predict, but data from virtual simulations can help first responders create strategies to mitigate the impact of unforeseen disasters.

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