Today @ Colorado State has been replaced by SOURCE. This site exists as an archive of Today @ Colorado State stories between January 1, 2009 and September 8, 2014.

Research / Discovery

Alert system could warn of impending disaster faster

January 7, 2014
Kortny Rolston

When flash floods or tornadoes strike, residents usually have minutes to respond. These fast-forming disasters often outpace the ability of local emergency responders to warn people who may be in harm's way.

Colorado State University professor V. “Chandra” Chandrasekar is part of a project to develop an emergency communication system that spots tornadoes or floods earlier, “finds” people in affected areas, and texts them emergency information on their mobile phones.

Radars developed by CSU professor V.

The system will rely on radars that Chandra has developed to “nowcast” real-time weather conditions to forecasters and emergency managers. It will also “geocast” messages to individual GPS-enabled mobile devices. Researchers also will study what messages prompt people to prepare for a disaster in a timely manner.

“You can have the best detection system in the world, but if you don’t have a way to tell people, it doesn’t help protect them from harm,” said Chandra, one of the project’s principal investigators.

The $2.8 million National Science Foundation project is a collaboration between CSU, University of Massachusetts, and University of Delaware as well as researchers from France.

Wireless challengesClick for a larger view.

More than 90 percent of Americans owned cell phones as of May 2013, according to a Pew survey, making them more connected to each other, news and events than ever before.

But wireless technology also poses challenges for emergency managers trying to alert people in a specific area. Unlike landlines, cell phone numbers aren’t tied to a geographic location and residents must now register their cell numbers to receive local emergency alerts.

Emergency managers can work with wireless providers through the federal Wireless Emergency Alert system to issue alerts to a geographic area. But WEA doesn’t work if cell towers are damaged, and the messages are limited to a certain number of characters, like tweets.

Chandra and his colleagues hope to fill in those gaps with geocasting.

Geocasting is a network protocol developed for the U.S. Army that can send messages to GPS-enabled devices based on their current location. Communication occurs device to device and does not rely on towers, routers or other fixed infrastructure. Because of that, geocasted messages can reach devices in remote areas or when towers are down. It also works in high-traffic urban areas with thousands of mobile devices.

“With geocasting, we can turn mobile phones into emergency communication devices,” said Brenda Phillips, a University of Massachusetts researcher who is .the principal investigator on the project. “It’s also resilient and can operate in challenging conditions.”

Chandra’s area of research focuses on modifying his short-range radars, which scan the lower atmosphere for tornadoes, to also predict flooding. He will equip the units with sensors to measure rainfall over time. That data will feed a computer model that can determine the likelihood of flooding. 

Other teams are researching the context of emergency messages and perfecting the geocasting technology.

The project is expected to conduct live demonstrations in the Dallas/Fort Worth area in 2015.

“We want to show this will work in a real-world environment,” Chandra said.