Author: Kat Flesh, VP of Partnerships

Many states are in the midst of a hot, dry summer, the West coast and Southwest are facing another season of wildfires. As a California native, the devastating impact of wildfires is all too familiar. In Twenty twenty one California faced unprecedented fires such as the Dixie fire which burned nearly 1 million acres across the Sierra Nevada. Over the years, there have been many disastrous wildfire seasons impacting Californians. Twenty twenty two looks like it will be no exception.

In addition to immediate, devastating damage like loss of life, private property, and livestock, wildfires and other disasters can have long lasting effects. Fallen trees and mudslides, and damaged roads and bridges prevent people from accessing homes and businesses for days, weeks—even months. In early 2021, Highway 1 along California’s Central coast was closed for months to repair a section of the road that washed away during a winter storm.

In California, many residents are not only subject to unhealthy levels of smoke and significant property destruction as a result, but also, damage to public infrastructure from both wildfires themselves and other related disasters such as landslides and mudslides.

In addition to loss of lives and homes and destruction of public and private property, natural disasters come with a hefty financial burden. Earlier this year, Pacific Gas & Electric, America’s largest utility, agreed to pay more than $ 55 million in settlements to people who lost homes as a result of wildfires in 2017 and 2018. In 2018, wildfires in California resulted in financial losses of nearly $150 billion. A staggering 58 percent of this loss was due to fires disrupting the state’s economic supply chain and impeding transportation and labor.

Meeting the need for a speedy recovery

While these types of disasters have increased in both frequency and severity, the advancement of technology is, too, accelerating. Residents are, of course, eager for a prompt recovery, and innovative tools are proving instrumental in meeting these needs. People expect the roads to be passable, and for bridges, power lines, and water pipes to be functional. Deb Matherly, consultant and resilience expert, weighed in on the importance of resilience in infrastructure projects during a recent webinar:

“As we hear from the DOT CEOs that we have interviewed: ‘their customers expect this work to be done… the public expects us to keep things moving.’ And that’s the bottom line for agencies being prepared.” — Deb Matherly

States and local governments are now equipped with essential, tech-driven assets, and as such, can improve their disaster response. For example, 2020’s record-breaking hurricane season saw five hurricanes devastate the Gulf Coast. In response, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (LaDOTD) repair teams and debris removal crews used innovative inspection technologies to help establish safe and travelable infrastructure for first responders in affected areas. This technology assisted the state in prioritizing citizens’ needs and helping ensure those affected received necessary assistance.

As states across the country prepare for their unique challenges and potential disasters, departments of transportation and other government agencies are in an ideal position to embrace technological innovation that will enable them to respond faster, act on real-time data, and become more adaptable in their response.

Most importantly, modern systems and technology are allowing agencies to plan their response to future disasters more effectively: With the appropriate tech, teams can better identify which areas of destruction to prioritize once disaster strikes. This makes it easier for transportation leaders to react quickly and mitigate loss. Faster reaction means impediments that restrict movement of people and products can be lessened and that damage can be repaired more quickly and cost-effectively.

Specifically, innovative technology in emergency response allows for four key benefits:

  • Enhanced productivity and efficiency
  • Improved communication, collaboration and remote connectivity
  • Deeper insights
  • Adaptability

Here’s how:

Given wildfires are unpredictable, it is essential to use time and resources as efficiently as possible. With advanced technology, teams can react immediately during a disaster or emergency. This creates the potential for greater impact. For example, teams can better understand where debris is blocking roads or where fires have spread. This information provides crews the insights to prioritize how and when to respond to each hazard.

Communication is enhanced as well: Even if traditional modes of communication are unavailable, cloud-based technology resources allow crews and teams to stay in touch and collaborate through a single channel or platform. For example, a collaborative technology that provides a way to take detailed photo observations of debris and other disaster ramifications from a safe distance can expedite repair of damaged infrastructure. GPS coordinates associated with images captured can provide a precise location to areas of concern.

Modern technologies also empower teams to act on real-time facts and data. Inspection technologies that capture quality observations with embedded, easily-accessible metadata allow agencies to assess damage and make plans based on reliable information.

Finally, adaptability is significantly enhanced with innovative technology: Even though it may be possible to predict the likelihood of a disaster, the resulting damages will vary with each unique situation. As such, DOTs and supporting agencies can operate with improved flexibility in the face of unpredictable situations. Technology that feeds data directly to spreadsheets allows agencies to quickly grasp debris quantity and damage estimates. This information can be useful in establishing priority routes for each fire zone and expedite road clearing for first responders and the traveling public.

The role of innovative technology now and in the future

Throughout this wildfire season and in years to come, state and local governments throughout California and the southwest have an opportunity to embrace technological innovation and transform the way they address these increasingly common and severe events in an efficient and effective manner. Being able to continue to improve the response to disasters like wildfires can be a crucial element of saving lives, protecting land, and recovering faster from these devastating events.

Watch on-demand now to hear how engineering firms and departments of transportation are leveraging technology to enhance disaster preparedness and response efforts.