U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations conduct a search and rescue mission along the Cape Fear, N.C., waterway in the wake of Hurricane Florence on Sept. 17, 2018. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo by Jaime Rodriguez Sr.)

The Role of AI in Preparedness: Practical Advice from Former FEMA Deputy Administrator

The future of emergency management presents us with a growing challenge in continuing to meet escalating demands. Emergency managers across the country know that the frequency and severity of natural disasters is increasing. They deal with this fact every day while working heroically to keep us safe, but they are facing an ever more daunting task. From the record-breaking floods still ravaging the Carolinas in the wake of Hurricane Florence to the nearly 8,000,000 acres that have burned in wildfires so far in 2018, to the devastation of Harvey, Irma and Maria, the professionals who respond to these disasters are confronting increasingly stretched budgets, exhausted workforces, and depleted resources. We need a new strategy to meet these demands.

Emergency managers deserve more, and the citizens of this country, our neighbors and friends, deserve and demand more. Their lives and their livelihoods could be at stake. Against this backdrop, I urge our policy makers and political leaders to recognize the scope of the challenges that lie ahead and to devote more resources to emergency management budgets across the country and at all levels of government. As the risk of disasters rises, we must equip our first responders and emergency management professionals with the resources they need to tackle the new challenges that await in addition to those we’ve already experienced.

The good news is that while increased appropriations can’t be replaced, we don’t have to wait for politicians to act. There are new, affordable technologies that can serve as force multipliers, enabling emergency managers to do more with what they have. Artificial intelligence (AI) is perhaps the most powerful of these new technologies and it is increasingly being put to use in the service of emergency management. In fact, there has been such a profusion of disaster-related solutions imbued with various artificial intelligence and data capabilities that emergency managers are under increasing obligation to develop the skills to effectively assess the relative merits of various technologies.

Corporate endeavors are emerging in support of the development of new tools and opportunities for emergency managers. For example, IBM has been working to combine its Watson technology with the weather data it acquired as part of its purchase of The Weather Company to enable third-party developers to experiment with a range of disaster-related solutions. Facebook has aggregated geolocation data from its users and provided it to assist humanitarian organizations after natural disasters. Google is using AI to develop enhanced flood warnings in India as part of its Google Public Alerts program. These solutions are agile and have the potential to reach millions of people with their light touch and mass market appeal.

Other innovative companies are developing solutions that provide deeper insights but require somewhat more customization and data integration. For instance, One Concern (in full disclosure, a company I advise) is using AI to develop holistic resilience solutions that marry natural phenomena sciences with machine learning to provide cities and companies with hyperlocal impact predictions. Their tools are designed to help emergency managers and risk professionals prepare for and respond to disasters such as floods, fires and earthquakes, and ultimately these tools have the evidence to effectively mitigate the impact of a disaster.

I am hopeful that all of these solutions can help when it comes to preparing for, responding to, recovering from and mitigating against natural disasters, but for the emergency manager trying to decide how to round out their toolkit, there are some useful points to consider.

  1. Artificial intelligence should never replace the experience and wisdom of well-trained disaster professionals, but don’t be afraid to get technological help. When deciding what AI tools to deploy, make sure to consider how they integrate into your department’s planning and preparedness initiatives. The right tools can make your teams exponentially more effective.
  2. Saving lives and livelihoods is easier if you take steps to do it well it before a disaster strikes. Studies have shown that for each dollar spent on mitigation, six dollars can be saved during a disaster. Having tools that inform what policies will be the most effective is invaluable.
  3. AI solutions that not only help respond in the aftermath of disasters, but also help prepare, offer more bang for their buck. By using the power of AI, emergency managers can train on multiple realistic scenarios that enable them to face real-world events with familiarity and confidence.
  4. We serve the public, but the public is also a great asset and a resource that shares our goals. Efforts to more efficiently loop them in and engage them, especially in more efficient and effective information-sharing, could improve our efforts, our trust, and our relationship with the real decision-makers.
  5. A successful disaster management strategy links and leverages all available resources to maximize the collective response. Technology provides one more resource that can help connect and boost the efficacy of our efforts. Remaining flexible and open to adopting new ideas and methods will help us update our strategies as the demands continue to grow.

I have worked in the emergency management field for too long to be unreasonably optimistic about the challenges we face and I am not naive enough to think that there is a single panacea for the increasing risk of natural disasters. However, artificial intelligence offers those of us in the field, as well as business and government leaders, with a slew of new tools that have the potential to significantly change outcomes for communities and individuals impacted by disaster. This is one of the most exciting developments to occur in emergency management in a long time. With the collective intelligence of emergency management best practices and AI we could save more lives, preserve more livelihoods, and make our communities safer and more resilient.

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The Honorable Richard Serino is currently a “Distinguished Visiting Fellow” at Harvard University, National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. Mr. Serino was appointed by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 8th Deputy Administrator in October 2009 and served until 2014. Prior to his appointment as Deputy Administrator, he served as Chief of Boston EMS and Assistant Director of the Boston Public Health Commission. As Chief of Boston EMS, Mr. Serino served as Incident Commander for over 35 mass casualty incidents and for all of Boston’s major planned events. During his time at FEMA, he oversaw 60 disasters from flooding in the Midwest, tornado devastation in Missouri, tsunami destruction, and numerous hurricanes. Mr. Serino was on scene at the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 as the highest-ranking official of DHS. Under Mr. Serino’s leadership, FEMA has started the following initiatives such as FEMA Corps, FEMA Stat, the FEMA Think Tank, a detailed budgetary process, and a Disaster Workforce and Workplace Transformation.

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