How The IoT Can Help Cities Affected By Natural Disasters

Operator at emergency center
For the first time in history, it’s possible for emergency responders to know where a city’s population is located (at least in aggregate) in real time, not just estimates based on statistical and historical models.

Most of the time, we think about the Internet of Things as a value-added technology with obvious (and sometimes not-so-obvious) business applications. But IoT’s potential is far-reaching, and not unlike firefighters and FEMA, it offers the ability to help cities prepare for and better respond to natural disasters. Indeed, given a choice between responding to an earthquake with Duane “The Rock” Johnson or a thoughtfully deployed IoT, there’s no contest: Bet on the tech.

Consider the fact that without the kind of detailed geo-located sensor data provided by the IoT, most emergency responders can’t get reliable information about a disaster area until they actually arrive on the scene. But with the right sensor network (and the infrastructure to receive, process, and interpret the incoming data) they can intelligently react to conditions before they even arrive, giving responders military intelligence-style situational awareness and additional time to plan and deploy.

So what kind of sensors are we talking about? Imagine sensors positioned in critical facilities like power stations and distributed throughout urban areas on power lines and telephone poles. They can also be mounted along sea walls for coastal towns and on dams and at hydroelectric facilities.

These sensors can monitor and transmit a lot of information – temperature, water level, air and water quality (for example, the presence of smoke, chemicals and even toxins), and more. Camera-equipped sensors can even deliver real-time visuals from countless locations around the city. And because most people carry smartphones, data from those devices can be included as well – for the first time in history, it’s possible for emergency responders to know where a city’s population is located (at least in aggregate) in real time, not just estimates based on statistical and historical models.

With sufficient operational planning, ground-based sensors can be augmented, when needed, with mobile sensors in the form of drones. These drones can be used to provide additional sensor coverage in critical areas or to help in active search and rescue operations.

Indeed, government agencies at the city, state, and even Federal level should be embracing the IoT as a tool for responding to disasters of all kinds.

And it’s easy to sell the value of IoT. For the general population, these tools can be used to send warnings and alerts directly to citizens’ phones, giving everyone timely about earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, wildfires, and more. During the recent fires in California, for example, the Camp Fire was moving at an almost unbelievable one football field every second, and many Californians found out about the fire’s spread via robocalls to land line phones. A smarter, faster, and more mobile solution can save lives.

There are other ways that the general population can benefit directly from deploying an IoT solution for disaster management. Thanks to geolocation, for example, when citizens access emergency services via their smartphone, intelligent systems can correlate their location with sensor data and provide the best escape routes and other critical information – helping them to avoid problem areas and reduce their dependence on news (which is likely already out of date) or emergency responders (who are spread too thin to help everyone). And even these incoming information requests can be tracked and analyzed for trends and assessments in real time during the emergency.

The good news is that these sorts of solutions are already finding their way out into the real world. Sections of the River Nare in Columbia, for example, already has a working network of sensors designed to monitor water levels and predict collapses in the river bank and subsequent flooding. And Girona, Spain is home to La Garrotxa, a county populated with dozens of volcanic cones. Here, the government has installed an early warning system to monitor telltale signs of volcanic activity.

Closer to home, a few cities in the US have already had the chance to use the data that comes from networks of sensors to assist with disaster recovery. The damage from 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, for example, was mitigated by data that kept residents informed about flood levels and shelter status. And various businesses – such as energy companies, telecommunications and insurance firms – directed their fleets of drones to assess damage to power lines, cell towers, and other critical infrastructure.

Find out how an IoT platform like Canopy can help your government agency turn its IoT ambitions into reality.

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