Mar 16 2021

The Power of Prediction: Emergency Response During a Pandemic

State and local agencies need to use data more effectively to prevent, respond to and recover from emergencies.

It would be clichéd if it wasn’t so grim, but 2020 has reminded us all how volatile and treacherous our planet can be: record wildfires in the Western United Statesunprecedented tropical storm activity in the Atlantic basin and heat waves across the globe. On top of all this, a virulent, once-in-a-century pandemic has touched every corner of the planet and shows no signs of abating soon.

Responding to emergencies has never been easy. Events (even human-made ones) tend to be construed as beyond our control and impossible to prevent. As a result, our model for emergency response is almost entirely reactionary: Organizations prepare to the extent they can, maintaining equipment and staying alert. Once something happens, they spring into action.

The coronavirus pandemic has shown that we can no longer be content to wait and respond to world-changing events. That’s because global research organizations can now use science and technology to analyze massive quantities of data and trends. Once the coronavirus began to spread, we started to apply those same techniques to model how — and critically, where — the virus was heading next.

Using Technology to Predict the Unthinkable

The same data-driven technologies that large research organizations use to predict macro trends are now increasingly used by local agencies responsible for preventing, responding to and recovering from emergencies.

They are using location intelligence technology that analyzes the complex interconnections among the natural and human-made systems at a particular location to build intelligent immune systems — national, regional and local — that interconnect our society.

Instead of waiting until it’s time to shift into urgent response mode, organizations are deploying web-based location intelligence systems to enable real-time collaboration and communication with the public.

By fusing disparate data sets through the lens of place, agencies can act with both speed and precision, pinpointing where to start the backfires to contain a wildfire, where to evacuate before a hurricane and where to lock down during a pandemic.

Consider wildfires. Climate models can tell us when higher temperatures are expected on a given day at a given place and the amount of drought that has occurred there. When factoring in reduced humidity and increased strength of prevailing winds, this raises a red flag. But location intelligence goes beyond just the natural world.

Agencies also need to monitor and track data about the location and status of critical infrastructure, such as communication towers, transportation systems, pipelines and chemical plants.

To safeguard communities, agencies also need to understand where their most vulnerable populations live by mapping demographics and social equity indicators, including age, physical needs, language, race and access to evacuation vehicles. When you merge these data sets, you start to develop a hyperlocal picture of wildfire risk and potential impacts.

MORE FROM STATETECH: How can you construct an effective emergency operations center?

Developing a Smarter Emergency Response

Inland Empire Health Plan (IEHP) is the largest nonprofit Medicare-Medicaid plan in the country, with more than 1.3 million members in Riverside and San Bernardino counties in California, and it must reckon with the effects of wildfires on its members every year.

As utilities began using proactive power shut-offs to reduce wildfire risk when conditions are combustible, IEHP realized it needed a way to ensure that members who rely on durable medical equipment (such as ventilators) could continue to receive critical care during an emergency.

By overlaying data from local utilities, emergency response authorities and its own patient records, IEHP developed a straightforward application that allows frontline staff to identify vulnerable members’ homes and facilities that are near wildfire perimeters or power shut-offs. IEHP can then use this information to coordinate the safe relocation of vulnerable members during an emergency, ensuring their continuity of care.

With the pandemic raging, the ability to ensure that people on ventilators continue to receive care is critical to saving lives. IEHP’s app and approach were recently recognized by the state with the prestigious California Department of Health Care Services Innovation Award for 2020.

The pressure on agencies that deal with emergencies is only increasing. Climate change is turbocharging storms, inundating areas with routine coastal flooding and creating apocalyptic conditions conducive to explosive fires.

Organizations must adopt a more proactive posture to maintain public health and keep communities safe. If they don’t, the misery that billions have experienced in 2020 may no longer remain a once-in-a-century phenomenon.

Igor Kutyaev/Getty Images