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Coast Guard adapting tools for future disasters

Following the recent rash of hurricanes, the Coast Guard is rethinking the ways in which social media and other technology can be used to assist in disaster response.

At the height of the response to Hurricane Harvey, the Coast Guard was receiving more than 1,000 emergency calls per hour. In the Houston area, 911 call centers also were reportedly overloaded, so residents took to social media to seek out help.

"The Coast Guard is not used to sending out a helicopter in response to a Facebook post," said Vice Adm. Sandra Stosz, the Coast Guard's deputy commandant for mission support, at a homeland security conference earlier this month.

But the Coast Guard, which officials frequently say is doing more with less, will need to adapt and innovate, and Stosz suggested social media and other technology as a way to do that.

In a first for the Coast Guard, searchers and rescuers used information from crowd-sourced social media posts to help determine which neighborhoods to respond to when they weren't busy helping critical survivors at known locations.

The information came from two Coast Guard Academy cadets who created so-called heat maps, showing high-density areas where lots of people were reportedly in need of help, based on social media posts sifted through by 500-plus volunteers worldwide.

Still, the Coast Guard urged people in need of rescue to call 911 and other emergency numbers, not report it on social media.

Additionally, Coast Guard pilots used electronic flight bags in their response efforts to Harvey. The flight bags have tablets showing where power lines and towers are so the pilots can navigate around them. They also can receive updated plans or other briefings while in the air. Mapping apps help them find specific addresses and locations.

In addition to search and rescue, the Coast Guard also is responsible for reopening ports following a disaster. Ports are often big economic drivers. Take Houston as an example. Port Houston generates more than $5 billion in state and local tax revenues, so getting these ports back up and running has big economic implications.

To help in this regard, the Coast Guard used electronic aids to navigation, developed by the Coast Guard's Research and Development Center in New London, to replace lost or damaged buoys and beacons. They are broadcast via radio signal and appear on the navigation screens of ships with automatic tracking systems.

The research and development center also is looking into using small devices to track, in real time, its smaller boats and team responding to incidents like Harvey.

"The response and relief efforts to Hurricane Harvey, Irma, they may compel us to take another look at our portfolio in terms of what we need to invest in," Bert Macesker, executive director of the research and development center in New London, told Coast Guard veterans during a recent tour of the center.

"We may need to invest in more mass rescue technologies, social media technology, which is one of the tools that was getting a lot of play in terms of asking for help," he said.

Social media also was an integral part of disaster response in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. More than 20 million tweets were posted during and immediately following Sandy's landfall, despite the loss of cellphone service at the height of the storm, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's 2013 National Preparedness Report.

It's likely that social media, a quick and easy way to disseminate information, will be used even more when these disaster situations arise in the future.

In the case of Hurricane Irma, first responders in Florida reportedly used social media to coordinate and communicate their efforts. In Puerto Rico, where communication was extremely limited following Hurricane Maria, people in the mainland U.S. used phone messaging apps like Zello and WhatsApp to try and reach loved ones on the island.

There's no established protocol for how federal agencies should use social media in these situations. And Stosz, in her remarks, said there needs to be.

Al Arsenault, with the research and development center in New London, agrees.

"It's a delicate space to be working in, especially as a government user," Arsenault said by phone Wednesday.

Arsenault was the lead for a Coast Guard project to crack down on hoax callers. Social media analytics is one way to track down these hoax callers, who often like to brag online.

There are a variety of tools to analyze and organize information coming from social media, and even plot some of that information on a map, Arsenault said, adding that "the last thing we want is response group to be inundated with social media content that doesn't help them."

The research and development center worked with Coast Guard responders for Harvey and Irma, and had "a possible capability in support of Irma" but the Coast Guard wasn't ready for it yet, Arsenault said.

"They are seriously looking at tools like this down the road for future response efforts," he said. "We're hoping our work pushed a little bit. We're hoping our research pushed them down this road a little."

j.bergman@theday.com

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