Thursday, February 14, 2008

911 calls offer potential early warning system

Here’s a brilliant idea – to get a swift portrait of an unfolding emergency, a system that instantly analyzes emergency calls. From Terra Daily: When confronted with emergencies or natural disasters, such as the wildfires that raged through San Diego and Los Angeles counties last October or the tornadoes that hit the southern U.S. last week, residents often dial 9-1-1 as their first course of action.

Now, UC San Diego researchers from the San Diego Supercomputer Center and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, using 9-1-1 data from these wildfires and other emergency situations, have devised a method to analyze and visually display these calls to detect specific patterns. Their ultimate goal: to assist in developing an early warning system and coordinate responses on a wider scale that could one day save lives and limit property damage.

"Because of the time-critical element within the first responder community, this research could assist emergency service providers and organizations in allocating appropriate levels of both human and financial resources as part of their overall planning," said Chaitan Baru, SDSC Distinguished Scientist and one of the project's principal investigators.

Baru, along with researchers from Scripps Oceanography, developed the pattern-detecting method - a computer algorithm - after analyzing nearly three years of 9-1-1 call data from the San Francisco Bay area, and more than 20 months of similar data from throughout San Diego County.

The data included time/date/length of the emergency calls, how quickly each call was answered, and phone type (i.e. business, residence or wireless). To protect privacy, the 9-1-1 call locations were converted into latitude and longitude coordinates and then dithered, or randomly blurred, so that the precise location could not be recovered.

By combining the call data with topographic images from Google Earth, researchers conducted a spatiotemporal analysis - relating both space and time together - of typical call activity in order to set parameters that would automatically alert viewers of abnormally high call rates. These 'hotspots', or clusters of activity within certain areas and within predetermined lengths of time, were then directly correlated to specific events in those areas such as an earthquake, explosion or fire.

While SDSC researchers have been doing only retrospective analyses based on collected data, it is a vital first step to creating visual analyses in real time and on a much larger geographic scale, which would require supercomputing resources for data storage and graphics.

…Baru believes the SDSC/Scripps Oceanography project could also be beneficial to local governments, many of which are wrestling with budget constraints while striving to provide high levels of emergency service. "It could also allow more efficient coordination of similar services across a greater area in the event of a larger scale disaster," he said….

Photo of emergency phone on George Washington memorial bridge in Fremont, Washington by Cumulus Clouds, Wikimedia Commons

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