Easing emergencies through computer technology

Just west of Canyon, Texas, the rains had come at night.

In 90 minutes, 10 inches had fallen, causing the area's worst flash floods. Four persons were drowned, another 15 were injured. High waters stranded residents in trees for hours, and destroyed or damaged well over 100 homes as well as cars, dams, and three country clubs.

Meanwhile, in nearby Amarillo, the National Weather Service office didn't get word until 4 a.m. - several hours after the initial flooding. Somehow, communications had broken down.

Although this incident occurred four years ago, it is one that has been repeated often, says T. Michael Carter, a fellow at Colorado State University's Atmospheric Research Institute in Fort Collins. In a four-year study of emergency procedures across the country, Mr. Carter and his colleagues found that an average 60 percent of the crucial emergency agencies never received warning of an impending tornado or flood.

But now, after one of the nation's severest winters made headlines, a new technology is quietly taking hold that may one day improve emergency management. Already, experimental microprocessors -- similar to personal or desk-top computers -- are available that can speed weather warnings and help relief efforts.

Carter's microprocessor, for example, pinpoints towns and cities in a weather warning area. Thus, a forecaster could tell an emergency dispatcher whom to warn and how they can be reached.

Currently, many emergency dispatchers only are told what counties to warn, Carter says. The system, to be tested in the Denver area this summer, can also improve flash flood warnings by listing the creeks, streams, and rivers located in an area of projected heavy rainfall.

Microprocessors also have another function -- aiding relief efforts, says professor Al Wallace, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. In a disaster, ''people are willing to work -- that's not the problem.'' But their efforts have to be coordinated, usually by a local official.

Because computers can display maps on their screens, they reduce the time needed to locate nearby emergency centers and vehicles, heavy equipment, and population concentrations, Mr. Wallace says. Eventually, computers could display a river and show how much and where flooding might occur with a certain amount of rainfall.

In New York, the state disaster preparedness office is testing how much a small computer can help emergency personnel respond to radiation leaks at nuclear plants. The new technology is also showing up in nuclear plant emergency plans in other states. Computer listings of nearby inhabitants, which could aid evacuation efforts, have been made for several plants.

But microprocessors are getting a bigger boost from joint federal-local experiments in emergency management.

One example is the National Weather Service's flash flood warning system in the Appalachians. In a highly flood-prone area at the intersection of Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia, the weather service has installed 80 rain gauges giving up-to-the-minute rainfall readings.

The gauges are monitored by computers at the county as well as the state level. This gives local officials an earlier warning and more time to warn residents of flash floods, says Robert Carnahan, chief of weather and flood warnings coordination staff for the weather service. ''The computer is particularly helpful in (these) rapidly developing weather situations.'' Flash flooding causes some 200 deaths and $2 billion property damage each year.

Of course, these efforts and others like them are not coordinated. And experts say it will take several years before the technology really takes hold. ''Most states have nothing,'' Wallace says. ''(Disasters) occur so infrequently, it's hard to get the backing as well as the money'' for computerization.

Some emergency management experts doubt that small cities and towns, financially hard pressed already, will ever invest in an emergency-preparedness computer.

If they do, ''it will be the daily use (of microprocessors) that will be the driving force,'' says Bob Blair, Federal Emergency Management Agency. Technology may aid local efforts, but the bulk of the work must be carried out by emergency personnel.

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