Emergency planning 101

RIT researchers use Rochester to study emergency-preparedness operations

Follow Michelle Cometa on Twitter
Follow RITNEWS on Twitter

Supplied photo

Rochester’s status as a mid-size U.S. city is among the factors that make it an ideal city to test theories and practices related to emergency planning.

Hurricane Irene closed the subway in a city that never sleeps. Cracks were found along the top of the Washington Monument after an earthquake. As swiftly as weather overwhelms major cities, emergency-preparedness teams need to move in to begin recovery efforts.

New York, Washington and other large cities have resources, staff and funding to develop recovery plans and shore up communities after disasters. But there are approximately 60 to 70 mid-size U.S. cities that are just as vulnerable to natural or manmade disasters, yet have limited resources for recovery assessment, planning and implementation. They must compete for federal aid and show that a landmark or regional area has national significance to warrant priority resource allocations.

“How do you rate significance? How do you determine what the hazard is and the resulting risk of having this capability, process or building not function?” asks Jennifer Schneider, the Russell C. McCarthy endowed chair and professor of civil engineering technology/environmental management and safety.

Schneider is starting to answer those questions through The Monroe Urban Area Security Initiative Infrastructure Analysis, a multi-year project for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. She and her team are analyzing strategic areas found in mid-sized cities and documenting resources and processes to determine gaps in emergency plans. The result will be a comprehensive emergency-preparedness model that will be used across the country.

Rochester is an ideal spot to test theories. It is a mid-size city that boasts one of the top telecommunications networks in the country, and it is part of a region that is a leading producer and distributor of foods. New York helps connect people through technology and contributes to feeding America.

“We’ll figure out what the significant entities are for our own region, and we’ll also build a tool for any of those other 60-plus urban areas around the country to do the same,” she says. “We have a lot of small, tech-oriented businesses that contribute a very unique piece to our economic, defense or community base, things that I didn’t expect when we started this research.”

The research project encompasses five counties: Monroe, Livingston, Orleans, Wayne and Ontario, each with separate utilities and civic organizations that have some degree of established emergency preparedness plans.

“The people that we are speaking to are movers-and-shakers. They have huge amounts of responsibility,” says Mark Callan, a fifth-year environmental sustainability, health and safety major, and co-op/researcher with the project. Typical visits are to commercial organizations, law enforcement agencies and companies in charge of utilities from roads and transportation, water, power, telecommunications, hospital and emergency care, food and community icons, he says.

After collecting field data, he inputs material into the automated critical management system, a national database managed by the Department of Homeland Security. Then the team uses that data as one piece of an overall systems-based risk analysis that focuses on inter-connectedness and emergency planning.

“I signed on to this co-op to really learn how an incident management system works on a large scale,” says Callan. “You really get a good look at how these things come together and how they function. You also get to see what motivates people, how they act in emergency situations—what breaks down when Hurricane Katrina comes to town and overwhelms all the systems you’ve designed not to be overwhelmed.”

Like many people, events such as Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 had an impact on Schneider, and she began looking at common activities in a different light. She began looking not only at the risk to physical infrastructure but the adjoining facilities like hospitals, schools and community organizations that the infrastructure weaves together.

“This project is pretty concrete. It’s not theory for the sake of theory, it’s how do you address this problem? How do you put the puzzle pieces together to address vulnerability and, most importantly, increase resiliency for communities? With the right analysis, you can build a smarter, safer community.”