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Report finds that National Disaster Network could save lives.

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. New sensors, communication technologies, and modeling programs have improved efforts to monitor earthquakes, storms, and other natural events; to identify hazard areas; and to take inventory of critical infrastructure such as buildings, roads, and power systems. Emergency managers and other decision makers, however, do not always have the technological capability to access or use the data from these information systems. Many regional or local agencies may not have access to costly, sophisticated computers and other technologies. In addition, data are generated by a variety of different sources that have inconsistent standards for presenting the information, making it difficult to interpret and use. As a result, emergency managers often are called on to make decisions with incomplete information.

Reducing Disaster Losses Through Better Information, a report by the National Research Council (NRC) Board on Natural Disasters, finds that 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. 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.

The board identified several priorities in establishing a national disaster network:

* Combining data from different sources into timely, meaningful information for decision makers would allow data on an approaching hurricane, for example, to be integrated 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.

* Ensuring that information is accurate and reliable will require mechanisms that allow emergency managers to evaluate information quickly. 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 may involve the use of private net systems that allow access only to specific users. Other communication systems should be set up as backups. 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.

* Obtaining resources and commitment from data users and providers will require additional funding and human resources.

Reducing Disaster Losses Through Better Information is available from the National Academy Press. To obtain a copy, telephone (202) 334-3313 or (800) 624-6242.
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Title Annotation:National Research Council report on federal government's planned emergency communication network
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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