Sandia tool puts disaster models into one picture

This season’s steady stream of natural disasters has underscored how important it is for first responders to plan and train for — and respond to — a variety of scenarios. But coordinating and sharing data can difficult because of the incompatibility of many modeling and simulation systems.

New software from an Energy Department lab could help solve the problem, allowing these different models to work together for the first time to create more realistic and precise models of disasters. And better models could improve coordination and response.

The Standard Unified Modeling, Mapping and Integration Toolkit (SUMMIT) was developed by the Sandia National Laboratories with funding from the Homeland Security Department's Science and Technology Directorate and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Exercise and Simulation Center.

The origins of the software came from the need to coordinate the multiple disaster planning, simulation and management programs that federal agencies had developed over the years, said Karim Mahrous, Sandia’s SUMMIT project lead. It became evident that there was a large gap in how disaster response exercises are currently planned and managed, he said.

Multiagency exercises rely on scenario planning, which traditionally involves numerous experts meeting to discuss and plot out issues. Although this produces good results for a single event, Mahrous noted that the data is not reusable since the scenario and information used in one regional exercise cannot be moved to another.

SUMMIT is designed to remedy this problem by quickly porting disaster data and information from one exercise into another.

For example, Mahrous said that the University of Arkansas created a model of a chemical plume from a derailed freight train for a local exercise. The model and data for the plume were then pulled and reused for another exercise in another state via SUMMIT, he said.

Federal agencies such as FEMA and DHS have spent years designing models and simulations for disaster planning, but these various systems cannot work together or share information. SUMMIT is designed to knit together these different models to allow planners to quickly swap data and to set up new scenarios with existing information within minutes or even seconds.

“SUMMIT’s entire role is to leverage that federal investment across the board,” Mahrous said.

The software for SUMMIT is platform-independent. It can run on desktop and laptop computers or on handheld devices such as smart phones, Andriod devices and iPads. In a recent earthquake response exercise, the organization managing the event wanted to create a tool that allowed organizations to modify the scenario to meet their objectives. The event’ planners then wanted to be able to move this planning data to first responders on the ground, which allowed them to “see” buildings damaged by the simulated earthquake. SUMMIT allowed this tool to be moved seamlessly to handheld devices. “The porting to the iPad was just a convenience move for us,” Mahrous explained.

Before SUMMIT, disaster response teams had to rely on written descriptions or other information to tell them about the extent of damage depicted in a scenario. This often led personnel on the ground to sometimes make up information because they had no immediate tools to model or assess a situation besides some maps and charts. “For the first time they were able to see the post-disaster world that they were role-playing,” Mahrous said.

Stitching together different models allows exercises to become more fine-grained and flexible. During FEMA’s recent National Level Exercise 2011 (NLE-11), SUMMIT allowed organizers to model casualties created by different disaster types and their impact on hospital resources.

However, another important potential application for SUMMIT is to allow these capabilities to be used to support first responders in a real event. Based on data from NLE-11, in a real situation such as a building collapse, FEMA could use the modeling tools connected by SUMMIT to quickly estimate casualties and contact local hospitals to alert them about incoming patients in real time, Mahrous said.

Besides modeling disasters, FEMA'’s next initiative is to take a whole-community approach to better prepare citizens to respond to emergencies. Although Sandia is in the early stages of working out the approach with FEMA, Mahrous said that the goal is to create a publicly accessible website that would allow entire communities to crowdsource data during a disaster. SUMMIT would be vital in helping to structure and map the data posted on such a site. “

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