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News from the National Academies
Date: Nov. 19, 1998
Contacts: Molly Galvin, Media Relations Officer
David Schneier, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

[ EMBARGOED: NOT FOR PUBLIC RELEASE BEFORE 5 P.M. EST THURSDAY, NOV. 19 ]

Publication Announcement

National Disaster Network Could Save Lives,
But Careful Planning Is Needed

Within the last decade, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and fires have caused hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars in property damage in the United States alone. In many cases, advanced technologies such as sophisticated weather tracking and warning systems provided critical information that helped reduce the death toll and mitigate damage. But some emergency managers and other decision-makers do not have the technological capability to access or use the data available from these advanced information systems. As a result, the federal government is considering establishing an information network to link disaster managers with hundreds of government, university, and private databases.

The federal government should continue laying plans for an integrated disaster information network, which could be a powerful tool in saving lives and minimizing losses, says Reducing Disaster Losses Through Better Information, a new report by the National Research Council's Board on Natural Disasters. The network should be designed to provide timely data in formats most useful for those who will make decisions in emergency situations. Once a national network is proved effective, it could be expanded to include other countries.

New sensors, communication technologies, and modeling programs have greatly improved efforts to monitor earthquakes, storms, and other natural events, identify hazard areas, and take inventory of critical infrastructure such as buildings, roads, and power systems. However, emergency managers often are called on to make decisions with incomplete information, the report says. Many regional or local agencies may not have access to costly, sophisticated computers and other technologies. In some cases, critical data are not widely available because of technological limitations. In addition, data are generated by a variety of different sources with inconsistent standards for presenting the information, making it difficult to interpret and use.

To overcome these obstacles, the board identified several priorities in establishing a national disaster network:

Combining data from different sources into timely, meaningful information for decision-makers. Data on an approaching hurricane, for example, could be integrated well beyond current capabilities with models that predict storm tracks, maps of population distribution, evacuation routes, and plans for emergency personnel and supplies. Those who will use the data should help design the system and define how information will be presented. In addition, government agencies, universities, and private organizations that provide data should assist in designing standards for sharing and linking vital information.

Assuring that information is accurate and reliable. The network will need to include mechanisms that would allow emergency managers to quickly evaluate information. Quality-assurance methods -- such as noting a posting date on materials generated by government agencies -- should be built into the network.

Developing an effective plan for disseminating data. The Internet could be a useful tool in providing access to information, but it is likely to be overwhelmed by the sheer number and variety of users during emergencies. Private net systems should be considered to allow access only to specific users, and other communication systems should be set up as backups.

Obtaining resources and commitment from data users and providers. Although establishing the network will be a significant effort, the needed databases that are needed already are well under way. Maintaining an integrated network will require additional funding and human resources.

The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering. It is a private, non-profit institution that provides independent advice on science and technology issues under a congressional charter. A board roster follows.

Read the full text of Reducing Disaster Losses Through Better Informationfor free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web siteor at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).


NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources

Board on Natural Disasters


Wilfred D. Iwan (chair)
Director
Earthquake Engineering Laboratory
California Institute of Technology
Pasadena

Lloyd S. Cluff (*)
Manager
Geosciences Department
Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
San Francisco

Lucile M. Jones
Seismologist
U.S. Geological Survey
Pasadena, Calif.

James F. Kimpel
Professor of Meteorology
University of Oklahoma
Norman

Howard C. Kunreuther
Cecilia Yen Koo Professor of Decision Sciences and Public Policy
Wharton School
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia

Stephanie H. Masaki-Schatz
Consultant
Disaster Recovery, Emergency Management, and Life Safety Planning
Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.

Joanne M. Nigg
Professor of Sociology and Co-Director, Disaster Research Center
University of Delaware
Newark

Dallas L. Peck
Former Director
U.S. Geological Survey
Reston, Va.

Richard J. Roth Sr.
Retired Insurance Executive
Northbrook, Ill.

Harvey G. Ryland
President and CEO
Institute for Business and Home Safety
Boston

Ellis M. Stanley Sr.
Assistant City Administrative Officer
City of Los Angeles

Frank H. Thomas
Natural Hazards Consultant
Loudon, Tenn.

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

Stephen D. Parker
Study Director

_________________________________________
(*) Member, National Academy of Engineering