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Home Automation Technologies, are they the New Fire Alarm?

Home Automation Technologies, are they the New Fire Alarm? hero image
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In the final installment of our 3-part blog series on the future of emergency management (read Part 1 or Part 2), Mary Jo Flynn-Nevins, MS, CEM, the Emergency Operations Coordinator for Sacramento County, CA, has joined us as a guest blogger to discuss how advances in home automation and “smart” devices can be leveraged by emergency managers and law makers in the near future. To hear more from Mary Jo about the changing space of disaster response, join us on December 11th at 2 PM ET for The Future of Emergency Management: Exploring How Technology Will Impact Public Safety.

The public consumption of technology is rapidly changing the Emergency Management profession.  New technologies designed to make our lives easier are now relied upon by so many during disasters.  It is hard to think that only two decades ago few people had a cell phone and now PEW Internet reports that not only do 99% of Americans have a cell phone, 77% have a smartphone and rely on the computer capacity of that phone[1]

The change and focus on technology in the palm of our hand keeps emergency managers scrambling for the best ways in which to reach the public during emergencies and disasters.  Traditional Emergency Alert System (EAS) broadcasts to TV are no longer as relevant. Fortunately, Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) are about to undergo some major modifications.  By May 1, 2019 character limitations on WEA will change from 90 to 360, and by November 20, 2019 more precise geo-targeting of a message down to 1/10th of a mile will be required. While these changes are likely to improve the audience reach of messages, we are still missing groups of people that could be reached through alternative technologies:  Home Automation, Vehicle Navigation, WiFi, and Wearable Technologies.

Home Automation

As Smart Cities are on the brink of emerging with 5G technology, which is promised to increase internet speed and reliability, individual homeowners have installed technology that improves their use and enjoyment of their home.  Imagine a future capability where sending a WEA message that distributes that message to internet connected devices such as Alexa, Google or Apple home devices reaches residents immediately even if their phone is not with them.  If smart fire alarm sensors can detect issues with smart connected appliances and turn them off to prevent fire, then additional devices could be used to receive alert notifications. 

In the 2017 Northern California Firestorm, nighttime notifications were challenged by loss of cellular service from fire-damaged cell towers, and that late at night, people are less likely to have devices on and connected to receive messages.  Now, imagine a connected smart home that during an overnight emergency evacuation, not only calls the occupants of the house on their cell phone, but their house wakes them up and tells them to evacuate.  It opens the window shades, turns on lights to exterior walls so firefighters have a better view inside. Announced messaging provides additional information about the nature of the disaster, where to proceed for evacuation, maybe the house even gives reminders of what to grab and or pack along the way.  Through smart lighting, the house can turn on or change the color of LED bulbs to indicate an emergency.  Additional sensory inputs like lighting and audio alerts may help to spur people to action more quickly when time is of the essence.  Our interest as emergency managers is not just to deliver these announcements, but to deliver them effectively and employ the technology that people are using rather than rely on previous methodology.  Law makers are thinking ahead with this technology and Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii has introduced the READI Act, a fix to prevent erroneous WEA messages like that in Hawaii regarding an impending missile.  The bill also includes exploring messaging Smart Televisions that are internet connected[2].  This promises to bring new and enhanced capabilities to the hands of emergency managers.

Vehicle Navigation and WiFi

One of the great vehicle technology changes is that of on-board WiFi and vehicle navigation technology.  Most new cars today are sold with these systems or come ready to be installed easily.  In another lesson from the 2017 Northern California Wildfires, navigation apps such as WAZE directed evacuating residents into areas of danger rather than away from danger[3].  The company has since created a program called the Connected Citizen Partners where GIS officials can directly modify the mapping to show areas of evacuation and safe, recommended routes of travel.  Through internet connected vehicles, emergency managers have yet another opportunity to reach individuals with critical messaging.  The bottom line is that as Emergency Managers, we should be treating internet connected vehicles as additional cell phones and a place where we can reach residents with emergency messaging and instructions.

Wearable Technology

In 2014 during the Napa earthquake, individuals wearing Jawbone wearable devices woke up at 3:40 in the morning and stayed awake per the aggregate activity data from the devices[4].  Today, wearable devices such as the Apple Watch can receive a WEA message.  Additionally, the newest watch can detect a fall and help you call 9-1-1.  If you are 65 years old or older, the feature is automatically activated on the phone.  Emergency Managers can expedite messaging and health care considerations through the devices that people wear.  What if there was two-way feedback where we know the aggregate location or movement of devices or cars so we can detect the effectiveness of evacuations?  During an earthquake, imagine Emergency Managers being able to access aggregate data that shows that the majority of wearers went from a standing to a prone position (or detected an approximate 3 foot change in elevation)?  These key pieces of information could give us a sense of how intensely people are experiencing the disaster or whether or not they are complying with instructions to evacuate or take action.

Ultimately, Emergency Managers must keep up with the technology available to the public and keep an open mind as to how and if these devices could be used to provide more effective public messaging and information.  The International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Emerging Technology Caucus includes Emergency Managers who explore new technologies and encourage adoption of new technologies to improve our response and recovery capabilities; look to them for the latest trends in technology and emergency management and get involved with your local organizations as policies are developed for the adoption of these technologies. 

Want to hear more? Mary Jo will be speaking more on the topic of technology and emergency management during our upcoming webinar  on December 11th at 2 PM ET, The Future of Emergency Management: Exploring How Technology Will Impact Public Safety.

 

[1] http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/mobile/

[2] https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/3238

[3] https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2017/12/07/california-fires-navigation-apps-like-waze-sent-commuters-into-flames-drivers/930904001/

[4] https://mashable.com/2014/08/25/jawbone-earthquake-data/#sJTsKjjRCqqj