BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Improving how decision-makers respond in the
minutes and hours that follow the first reports of a natural
disaster like the recent tsunami or a manmade incident, such as a
chemical accident or a terrorist attack, is the focus of a research
project at the University at Buffalo's Center for Multisource
"Responders immediately begin knitting together a picture that
makes sense of what is happening based on the flow of reports they
receive from the field," said Peter Scott, Ph.D., associate
professor of computer science and engineering in the UB School of
Engineering and Applied Sciences and principal investigator on the
"Our goal is to take the typically chaotic flow of reports of
variable quality and heterogeneous origin received from the field
in the period immediately after the disaster and transform it into
useful information for decision-makers and emergency responders to
act upon," he said.
The system is undergoing beta testing, Scott said, and should be
completed and available for use within one year.
The project, funded with a $2.5 million grant from the Air Force
Office of Scientific Research, consists of theoretical research on
information fusion coupled with design of a large-scale simulation
of a disaster modeled after the 1994 Northridge earthquake in
The goal is to produce response-system design guidelines,
applicable to both natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunamis
and wildfires, and to manmade incidents, such as chemical accidents
and terrorist attacks, and test them in the simulated-disaster
The software Scott and his colleagues are developing is driven
by data collected by the Federal Emergency Management
Administration during the Northridge earthquake and similar
earthquakes regarding characteristics of that disaster, such as
building and roadway damage, and how they correlated to
"Using our software, we create realistic simulations of
earthquakes in the San Fernando Valley of differing
characteristics, such as the depth of the quake, the location of
the epicenter and its proximity to population centers," explained
Scott. "Based on those parameters, the simulation determines the
number of casualties created as an immediate consequence of the
primary shake and their geographical distribution."
The computer program also simulates and "fuses" reports
typically received from observers such as policemen and civilians,
who may be providing redundant or contradictory information.
"Our simulation takes these reports and assigns probabilities of
error and uncertainty to the information they contain based on
known reliability data and then fuses the information into a
unified, coherent 'situation assessment' to help emergency
responders and decision-makers make the best, most timely decisions
that they can," Scott said.
One of the critical goals of the project and one that is a chief
concern for the Air Force, he added, is discovery, in the midst of
a primary incident, of an unpredicted and unexpected secondary
event that can occur as a result of the initial disaster.
"Psychological testing shows that a responder can too quickly
lock into the idea, 'OK, I'm responding to trauma casualties caused
by an earthquake,' and it's difficult for them to then consider
other issues," he said.
In the recent tsunami, he said, those secondary incidents might
include ruptured gas mains, environmental contamination or
widespread cholera. After an earthquake, the collapse of a highway
bridge might cause a tanker truck full of chlorine to fall and
rupture, spreading a toxic plume and causing a spike in respiratory
According to Scott, the information fusion process begins
linking reports and considering secondary causes, as soon as the
first two reports of casualties or damage are received.
"Our program is designed to suggest likely scenarios and to
provide confidence measures associated with each of those
scenarios," he said.
The software will provide those scenarios and measurements
within minutes or seconds after the first reports are received.
"If the situation assessment is not keeping pace with the
unfolding needs of the emergency responders and decision makers,
then it's not useful," he said.
Scott's co-investigators on the project from the UB Department
of Industrial Engineering include Rajan Batta; Ph.D., Li Lin,
Ph.D.; and James Llinas, Ph.D., all professors, and Ann Bisantz,
Ph.D., associate professor. Thenkurussi Kesavadas, Ph.D., associate
professor in the UB Department of Mechanical and Aerospace
Engineering, also is a co-investigator. Eight graduate students
also work on the project.
Jim Scandale of the CMIF Lab is software manager and the group
is supported by collaborators from the Systems Engineering
Department of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville and the
Department of Computer Science of the University of Arkansas at