Thinking Forward: An Internet of Things Primer for Emergency Managers

The Internet of Things (IoT) encompasses a community of devices and algorithms that gather and share information with each other via the internet. This sharing requires little, if any, human-to-human interaction. Smartphone users can already download mobile apps that fit under the IoT umbrella. Bluetooth enabled cars and remote home monitoring devices, among others, are also part of the IoT. Future applications are limited only by our collective imaginations and the speed at which new technologies can be developed.

Billions of dollars will be invested in IoT technologies over the next decade, and by 2020 we could be juggling upwards of seven IoT enabled devices per person, based on conservative population estimates. The implications of this surge in technology are outpacing the ability of practitioner communities to leverage its usefulness and comprehend its inherent vulnerabilities and potential risks, especially in the public sector. In order to spark conversation among emergency managers, here are just a few examples of how IoT might transform the practice of emergency management here in the United States.

Public information and warning

This is an obvious application for IoT, and the baseline technology is already in use. Traffic information from sensors (like surveillance cameras)at busy intersections or major thoroughfares can detect patterns and issue alerts to drivers in real-time.

Even though millions of drivers already use this technology in the form of mobile apps and GPS units, algorithms will make this process more efficient while consumer driven investments in the technology will make it more effective over time. This is especially important when saving time could result in saving lives.

An example of the many possibilities can be found in Quakebot, an algorithm that extracts earthquake data from the US Geological Survey and issues a description of the event to news outlets. In the near future new algorithms will collect more sensor data, make more rapid decisions, and then notify individuals or communities through mobile apps or other devices near instantaneously.

The next wave of technological advancement in the IoT will see a tremendous increase in the speed at which this data gathering, analysis, and dissemination occurs, ultimately re-shaping how emergency management agencies plan for and manage public information and warning.

Evacuation

Although it is a relatively rare occurrence, it’s not difficult to imagine scenarios where IoT sensors feed real-time information to and from devices during evacuations. This information could potentially alter evacuation routes in real-time, synchronize updates with instructions and other information (see above), or, provide clear and concise evacuation instructions to thousands of evacuees as they navigate road closures or exit routes. Additionally, the IoT could — within boundaries set by civil liberties and privacy standards — enable the gathering of data during an evacuation that informs decision makers about evacuee locations, health and other factors. Finally, data about normal conditions and traffic patterns could be used to project scenarios and better inform evacuation planning.

Mass care

Sensors in shelters can already gather information through automated registration and tracking systems — a technology that will only become more efficient as the IoT matures. For example, personal health monitoring mobile apps and other technologies are already available on the market, and can share this data with primary care providers.

Data of this sort accumulated during mass care response efforts could be leveraged through partnerships between health care facilities, clinics, and emergency managersin order to better facilitate the management of care.

Emerging technologies that can gather basic health information from users and transmit that data to health practitioners in other locations could also drastically reduce the need for health workers and volunteers to be physically present in disaster affected areas, thereby opening new avenues for virtual diagnoses and care that could reduce costs and save lives.

Event security

Stadiums, malls, political rallies, concerts and amusement parks (among dozens of other possible venues) are vulnerable to terrorist attacks and other threats and hazards. Crowdsourcing and surveillance footage, among other sensor data, could be coupled with threat information and intelligence gathered and analyzed by fusion centers or other intelligence agencies to identify nefarious individuals or suspicious activities. The baseline technologies are already in place and used by jurisdictions to monitor social media activity at major events.

Although they have their limits, IoT connected devices and algorithms could create efficiencies above and beyond existing capabilities to monitor activities and movements aimed at protecting large crowds and venues. The most apparent challenge, as with all of the areas discussed in this article, lies in balancing the need for security with privacy protections for individuals.

Risk assessment and vulnerability analysis

Risk and vulnerability for people and geographic locations fluctuates over time. This fluctuation is difficult to incorporate into even the most advanced risk assessments. By leveraging IoT applications and systems, emergency managers can better understand risk and vulnerability in near real time, which could in turn guide investments of energy and resources that better mitigate known risks and vulnerabilities.

For example, sensors monitoring weather or oceanic conditions could feed into data streams on populations or points of interest, enhancing the ability to predict the likelihood and consequences of disasters.

Critical infrastructure protection

As critical infrastructure becomes “smarter,” it also becomes more vulnerable. While the IoT could simultaneously re-define how we go about managing and securing critical infrastructures and find efficiencies in things like access control, identity verification and IT security, the IoT is also likely to result in critical infrastructures that are far more vulnerable, simply by virtue of being inter-connected, and therefore interdependent.

Emergency managers should work with critical infrastructure owners and operators to monitor systems and structures, and to anticipate an entirely new family of IoT vulnerabilities facing critical infrastructure sectors. Information gleaned from this dialogue can then be woven into risk assessments, vulnerability analyses, planning, training and exercises — staples of emergency management practice that can in turn support stakeholders and partners at all levels of government and across sectors.

These are but a few of the likely impacts facing the emergency management community as the IoT takes root. Emergency managers need to engage in frank dialogue on areas where IoT applications and systems could greatly enhance efficiency and effectiveness. Practitioners must also learn more about the potential vulnerabilities posed by the IoT in order to better serve their jurisdictions, and think proactively about the consequences for civil liberties and privacy if and when their organizations begin to implement or leverage IoT enabled technologies and the data they collect.

Through robust dialogue practitioners can better position themselves to both maximize the benefits of these new and emerging technologies, and better understand the inevitable impact it will have on the work of saving lives.

Dr. Andrew Coffey is a senior analyst for policy and research at IEM, a global security consulting firm specializing in homeland security, emergency management, defense and information technology. His consulting background includes policy development, program evaluation, network analysis and strategic planning. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Policy from Virginia Tech, and can be reached at andrew.coffey@iem.com

The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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