Computers help officials cope wisely with emergencies

When disaster strikes, responsible officials have to marshal a mass of complex, and sometimes hard-to-locate, information. Now, thanks to the small personal computer, they can have a powerful aide.

To help program such machines, those parts of the decision process that involve routine or structured tasks are identified. Retrieving data or instructions from emergency plans is such a task.

It is during the first few hours of an emergency that a county executive or a public works commissioner must make timely, correct decisions. Such officials need accurate data on the location and availability of personnel and equipment - data typically found in cumbersome loose-leaf manuals. Also, those data must be plotted on a map to help the manager deploy emergency resources.

All of these activities - locating personnel and equipment, determining disaster effects, and assigning resources - are done under stress. Phones are ringing. Data are difficult to find and hard to interpret. Time is of the essence. And the consequences of any decision could affect thousands of people and cost millions of dollars.

A small computer can do much to ease the confusion and help officials cope efficiently with such situations.

For example, the US Coast Guard's air-sea rescue center at its Boston office uses such a personal computer system. In this system, the dispatcher, given the location of a distress call, plots it on a computerized map of the district which shows the New England coastline. The map also displays the location of Coast Guard vessels along with information on their individual status and capability. The system then computes an estimated time of arrival for a ship sent to the site of the emergency. Alternatively, if that location is not known, the system will compute a search pattern.

Decisions made during a disaster require judgment and creativity under pressure. What is more, those making decisions often do so without benefit of experience.

Again, a small computer can help such officials by providing the kind of support that formerly was available only through large, centralized computer facilities.

Such decision-support systems assist management by automating routine tasks and providing models for problem solving. Also, they permit ad hocm inquiries of data banks and offer alternative ways of presenting data.

When disaster strikes a community, Red Cross workers and volunteers are among the first on the scene. They establish care centers and conduct surveys to determine the nature and extent of the disaster. Trained case workers assess victims' needs and provide food, clothing, and other necessities.

A decision-support system using a personal computer has been designed to provide more immediate data at the disaster site. Graphic displays of volunteers' damage assessments and records of disbursements help ensure a fair allocation of scarce resources.

To cite another example, county and city emergency managers adjacent to the Indian Point nuclear facility near Peekskill, N.Y., use a personal computer management system. This provides instantaneous graphic displays and written status reports containing information crucial to managing their response to nuclear accidents. Located in county and city emergency operations centers, the little computer can be linked as a terminal to the nuclear facility's computer or stand alone as an emergency-response system.

Data from monitors located about the plant tie into the on-site computer. Within seconds of an ''incident,'' should there be one, data on wind speed and direction, precipitation, and temperature are processed. These data are displayed both on color TV and on a printed map to show the shape, direction, and speed of the air mass moving over the nuclear site. If any radioactivity were released, its extent and direction would be shown. The decision-support system can also display guidelines that describe in detail the actions local officials should take.

One of the difficulties in disaster management is training local officials for an event that may never occur. Large-scale exercises that simulate an accident are expensive to conduct and hard to design. Now a one-on-one ''game'' has been developed where, for example, a radiological health officer plays against the personal computer.

The computer simulates a nuclear accident, forcing the official to make decisions. Stress is created with a built-in timer, and the player's responses, made under time pressure, are scored. The simulation takes up to an hour to play and incorporates local conditions. The result is a better understanding of the emergency plan and an official better prepared to deal with a local disaster.

A computer-based support system must be one that is interactive and ''user friendly.'' It must be designed for managers and not technicians. It must use menus (lists of options) on which the user can type such simple commands as ''yes,'' ''no,'' or ''tel'' (for telephone numbers). Alternatively, it should list numbers representing a choice of programs that can be selected.

Data can be presented both in lists and graphic displays on a color TV screen. The system must be portable, use a variety of power sources, and be inexpensive. Properly configured and programmed, a personal-computer decision-support system meets these requirements. It can aid in the response to virtually any man-made or natural disaster.

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