Information Technology And Natural Disasters

The ubiquitous presence of cell phones makes disseminating information even easier for emergency responders.

Dealing with disasters and natural hazards involves many areas of specialization in geology, public planning, emergency response, and communications. Information technology plays a very important role in facilitating disaster management and in allowing planners and responders to communicate and do their job efficiently.

Geographic Information Systems

Geographic information systems, or GIS, include any kind of computer mapping and display program that can be used to build complex visual models of landscapes and tie information to them in a way that physical maps cannot handle. For example, a map of a particular city done on paper becomes crowded and difficult to read with every extra datum you use. GIS allows a user to toggle different layers in a computer display and overlap different information as needed. Water pipes could be overlaid with seismic fault lines to see where the heaviest repairs will likely be after an earthquake. In addition to visual information, GIS allow a user to tie a database of facts, such as the flow rate of water pipes and the expected ground shaking around a fault. Public planners and geologists are often responsible for drafting GIS maps although anyone can make use of them.

Internet Resources

In an age when nearly everyone in the United States has access to the Internet, setting up information databases and educational websites about disasters and natural hazards has never been easier. The Federal Emergency Management Administration has extensive resources available online, including certification courses in disaster-related fields such as hazard mitigation and emergency operations center protocols.

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Social Media and Smart Phones

Social media websites and cell phones capable of browsing the Internet have revolutionized communication by allowing emergency responders to dispatch information when regular cell networks are down over 3G and 4G mobile Internet networks. Fire departments and other emergency responders can send messages to each other over wireless networks and issue text-based emergency information to other dispatchers with working cellular call capabilities.

Automated Cellular Alerts

Automated alerts can be sent from an operations center prior to or during a disaster to inform people of evacuation information or what to do next in an emergency. Cell phone alerts are particularly useful in large institutions like universities or businesses where everyone can register a phone number to receive alerts. Since cell networks may be down during a disaster, automated cell phone alerts are generally more useful before an emergency and in the later recovery phase.

Seismographs and Other Sensors

Sensors like seismographs and stream gauges are vital to geologists and emergency responders to predict when a natural hazard is likely to trigger a disaster. When the water level begins rising rapidly in a river or stream, emergency services can issue a well-informed flood warning to nearby residents. Similarly, a seismograph, which measures shaking, can be used to indicate when a volcano is becoming more active by registering small earthquakes. The metrics gathered from sensors can also be used by public planners to modify disaster plans or alter a city’s building code to indicate unsafe areas for construction.