Dynamic Decision Support for Emergency Managers

Project Outcomes

NSF Award 1260970:  I-Corps: Dynamic Decision Support for Emergency Managers

Louise K Comfort, Principal Investigator, University of Pittsburgh

Project/Grant Period: 10/01/2012 - 03/31/2013


Major goals:

Two major goals were stated for this project: 1) to identify the market for a prototype Dynamic Decision Support System (DDSS) to assist emergency managers in considering a wider range of options for action in dynamic, uncertain environments; and 2) to determine the feasibility of initiating a start-up company to bring the DDSS to market. We defined four basic tasks to undertake within six months, October 1, 2012 - March 31, 2013: 1) develop a business plan for a start-up company suitable for review by third-party investors; 2) develop a SBIR proposal to support product development for the proposed start-up company; 3) engage students in market research necessary to extend the proposed prototype in a relevant policy domain, and 4) demonstrate our working options module to an invited audience of potential clientele, investors, and interested decision makers in a half-day workshop.


Major Activities:

We undertook four major types of activities: 1) intensive interviewing of emergency managers at local, state, and federal levels; 2) participation in local public safety fairs and regional meetings of emergency managers; 3) field observation and interviews with key emergency management officials following Superstorm Sandy; and 4) demonstrations of our Dynamic Decision Support System to key officials in interested agencies.


Specific Objectives:

Our objectives in conducting the interviews included: 1) determining specific needs of emergency managers in making decisions before, during, and after extreme events; 2) assessing the current state of information management systems used by the respective emergency service agencies; 3) identifying the 'added value' of our DDSS for emergency managers; and 4) determining where and when our DDSS could most easily and effectively be introduced into the large, complex, interactive emergency response system.


Significant Results:

The Center for Disaster Management received a Community Resilience Innovation award from FEMA in late May, 2013 to conduct a pilot project for building community resilience to disaster risk among public, private, and nonprofit organizations in Allegheny County, PA. Importantly, the award represents FEMA’s recognition of the merit of the DDSS for communities seeking to improve decision making in risk environments, using a 'whole community' approach to risk reduction.



Two academic papers were presented at international conferences, six invited presentations were made to interested policy makers in federal agencies, and 63 interviews were conducted with local, state, and federal managers with emergency management responsibilities. The papers reported our development of a prototype dynamic decision support system (DDSS), using Bayesian modeling to identify options for action in complex, changing environments. The DDSS allows users to model interdependencies among physical conditions, resource constraints, and time constraints. Based on known constraints, the DDSS rapidly calculates the probability of effectiveness for different options that could be taken to reduce risk, protect lives, and secure property, based on recognized criteria. We developed protocols for knowledge elicitation and templates that assist practicing managers in clarifying decision rules.  Figure 1 below illustrates the Bayesian reasoning process. A detailed description is available at : http://www.cdm.pitt.edu/CDMProjects/DynamicIncidentManagement/tabid/388/Default.aspx



Two other participants engaged in this research: Mark Voortman, Postdoctoral Fellow, CDM, and Paul Petrovich, Mentor, Center for Enterprise Development, University of Pittsburgh. Four agencies/organizations serve as partners to this project: Allegheny County Emergency Management Services, Pittsburgh, PA; Federal Emergency Management Agency, Washington, DC; National Association of Workforce Boards, Washington, DC; and the US Army Corps of Engineers, Pittsburgh and Mobile, Alabama Offices.



The prototype dynamic decision support (DDS) module offers an innovative approach to linking the traditional process of situation assessment with a more explicit calculation of available options for decision in complex, dynamic environments. The DDS module enables rapid assessment of possible strategies of action under varying conditions of knowledge, resources, skills, and time. If widely available and used by personnel in public, private, and nonprofit organizations with responsibilities for managing risk, the DDS will contribute to building a more knowledgeable, capable, informed society that is increasingly able to manage its own risk, reduce losses, and enhance the sustainability of the natural and built environments.


Changes in approach and reason for change

Our initial approach was to target local emergency managers as potential users of the DDS who represent a large potential market. Yet, response from public agencies at different levels of responsibility indicated that developing a carefully designed demonstration project for the DDS would be the most effective strategy to gain interest and adoption by emergency services agencies. Our Community Resilience Innovation grant, funded by FEMA, enables us to design and conduct a pilot project in collaboration with Allegheny County Emergency Services, PA. This pilot project will create the basis for further extension of the DDSS model to other counties and possibly to other states and the nation.

Center for Disaster Management
3807 Wesley W. Posvar Hall, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15260