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Ref: Citizens using technology to help first responders in Minneapolis

Boston Herald

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Digital age spawns a new first-responder

Tech-savvy citizens step up to help
By Hiawatha Bray, Globe Staff | August 4, 2007

When a bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed in Minneapolis on Wednesday, bystanders raced to the scene to offer assistance, and to document the tragedy for the world.

Citizens with digital cameras had posted hundreds of images of the wreckage to Internet photo-sharing sites like Flickr within hours of the tragedy. Such photos aren't just personal documents; at a news conference, investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board asked to hear from people who had their cameras trained on the bridge at the moment it fell. Several people have responded so far, and the agency hopes their photos will yield clues to the collapse. "People are taking pictures at all times now," said Ted Lopatkiewicz, NTSB spokesman.

It's the most recent example of a transformation in the way we think about disasters. The term "first-responder" officially means the police, fire, and rescue workers who come to the aid of victims. But the digital age has given rise to a new kind of first-responder -- ordinary citizens with cellphones, computers, and Internet access. These people leap into action without being asked. They shoot snapshots and video of ongoing disasters. And they set up instant social networks that provide vital information to the public, the news media, and even the government.

It happened during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Hurricane Katrina, the Virginia Tech massacre in the spring, and in many other crises. Now governments, aid agencies, and entrepreneurs are developing an array of plans to use technology to harness the human impulse to help during a crisis.

"When disasters occur, people, resources, equipment, information, volunteers converge at the disaster area," said Kathleen Tierney, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado who studies how people respond to crises. "It's kind of the opposite of the panic myth -- that everybody runs away. In fact, everybody runs to disasters."

Today's omnipresent telecom technology is reshaping crisis response in ways that won't be fully understood for years. But public safety specialists agree that the first-responders of the future will be a lot less professional and a lot more digital.

"The technologies lower the barriers for collective action," said Howard Rheingold, author of "Smart Mobs," a book on how electronic devices spawn social networks. "People are able to do things together in ways they weren't easily able to do things before."

The Federal Communications Commission last week announced a plan to auction off radio frequencies for use by public safety agencies, and one bidder for that slice of the spectrum, Frontline Wireless LLC of Greensboro, N.C., hopes to create a network that will empower aid workers and civilians alike.

Stagg Newman, Frontline's chief technology officer, said the company's network plan would let civilians at a disaster site transmit video and still photographs while speaking over their cellphones. "You may be able to take a picture of what's going on," said Newman. "It gets onto the broadband network and immediately goes to the 911 center." Emergency workers would be able to evaluate the crisis before arriving on the scene.

It's a concept that's captured the imagination of Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York. He announced in January a plan to upgrade the city's 911 system so callers with cellphones can send in still and video images. In effect, the city would recruit ordinary people as its eyes and ears in the first minutes of a disaster. In June, the Los Angeles Police Department said it wants to install the technology, too. Other cities, including Philadelphia and Chicago, have expressed interest in such a system.

PowerPhone Inc. of Madison, Conn., is building a 911 video service, called the Incident-Linked Multimedia system. When a citizen dials 911 and reports an event, the 911 dispatcher will ask the caller to send pictures of the scene. The dispatcher then will send a text message code to the citizen's phone; the citizen will reply with pictures or videos. These images will be filed away, along with the date, time, location, and information about the citizen who placed the call.

The first-generation PowerPhone system won't be able to transmit images and voice in real time because today's 911 systems lack the needed bandwidth. But an upgraded network, such as the one proposed by Frontline Wireless, could easily transmit voice and live video together.

Public safety agencies see wireless phones and broadband Internet service as an efficient way to warn citizens of emergencies. Several communities are testing a cellphone notification technology developed by SquareLoop Inc. of Reston, Va., that would broadcast a text message about, say, a factory explosion to all the cellphones within range of the disaster.

But governments haven't been as interested in seeing civilians use these technologies to help emergency workers during a crisis. Many emergency workers regard civilian volunteers as a nuisance. "It is referred to as the 'emergent volunteer problem,' " said Art Botterell, who manages the community emergency warning system in Contra Costa County, Calif. "How are we going to keep all these people from getting in our way?"

W. David Stephenson, principal of Stephenson Strategies, a Medfield emergency management consultancy, said emergency workers won't be able to stop civilians from trying to help. "You've already lost control," said Stephenson. "You'd better get used to it."

Better yet, said Stephenson, government officials should make technology-aided citizen response a key component of their disaster plans.

Cellular systems don't always work in emergencies. For example, some cell systems were operated from New York's World Trade Center and were knocked out during the 9/11 attacks. So some people are trying to create an alternative based on the inexpensive walkie-talkies often used by children.

About 800 people in the Washington, D.C., area belong to the DC Emergency Radio Network, a band of volunteers who plan to use these simple radios to exchange information during emergencies. Freelance writer Bill Adler founded the network in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when traditional phone networks were jammed by worried citizens. "I realized the worst thing that could happen is to lose the ability to communicate with other people," Adler said.

Adler's goal is shared by Eric Knight, founder of the National SOS Radio Network, based in Farmington, Conn. Knight is trying to establish a nationwide network of volunteer groups trained in the emergency use of two public radio bands. "We're trying to create a kind of critical mass where there's enough people to make this a viable option." Knight estimates that Americans own about 100 million radios that would be capable of sending and receiving emergency information. If a sizable percentage of these users learned how to use the radios in a crisis, it could create an instant electronic network that could survive almost any catastrophe.

Even people hundreds of miles from a disaster can come to the rescue over the Internet. Though these volunteers have done much good, specialists worry that they can also cause confusion.

Website designer Katrina Blankenship of Powhatan, Va., owns the Internet address When the hurricane devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, thousands mistakenly visited her site looking for news about missing relatives. So Blankenship converted to a disaster-relief site, publishing information on missing people. Ultimately she published information that led to the rescue of nearly 500 Katrina refugees.

Blankenship said she plans to keep using to help people caught up in catastrophes. "It's not only now a Katrina site, it's a United States site," she said. "If a disaster occurs anywhere, anybody can go there [to the website] and ask for help."

Relief officials praised Blankenship and other Internet volunteers, but expressed concern that the proliferation of such sites would make their job more difficult. "We found about 50 of these sites" during the Katrina crisis, said Steven Cooper, who until June was chief information officer for the American Red Cross. "Let's suppose you were trying to find a loved one and you went to site A and the loved one went to site Z?"

Cooper's solution is Safe and Well, a nationwide Internet registry where people can look for information on missing loved ones and refugees can announce their whereabouts. Cooper launched the service during the Katrina disaster and ultimately reunited 40,000 to 50,000 families. And within 24 hours of the Minneapolis bridge collapse, more than 500 people registered at Safe and Well to reassure their friends and family members.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at

© Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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