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San Diego Tests New Emergency Response Technologies

Above: Military and civilian personnel work together to test new emergency response software at SDSU’s Visualization Center.

Audio

Aired 6/26/09

This week, San Diego State University was one of five sites around the nation testing new emergency response technologies. The exercises demonstrated tools developed for the military that are now available for civilian first responders. A lot of money is being invested in powerful new surveillance tools, but are these making us any safer?

— This week, San Diego State University was one of five sites around the nation testing new emergency response technologies. The exercises demonstrated tools developed for the military that are now available for civilian first responders. A lot of money is being invested in powerful new surveillance tools, but are these making us any safer?

SDSU’s Visualization Center is a darkened room full of lighted laptops and wall-to-wall screens showing maps of the globe from space. The Naval Space and Warfare System Center, a branch of SPAWAR, is collaborating with the university to stage a demonstration of the latest technology for keeping an eye on pretty much anything.

Jay Iannacito of the Navy Space and Naval Warfare System Center Pacific describes one of the scenarios he designed.

“We’re tracking a suspicious craft that seems to be eluding surveillance,” he says. “It’s coming up through Mexican territorial waters. It has passed San Diego Bay and is going into Mission Bay.”

The Navy and the Coast Guard have sophisticated technology to track vessels, but this data is not always easy to share with the people who really need to know. Especially when a vessel does something unexpected, like the one in this scenario, and moves into a different jurisdiction.

“How do you exchange that information,” Iannacito asks, “between the U.S. Coast Guard, the San Diego Harbor Police and then over to San Diego PD who have jurisdiction in Mission Bay, so that when the boat ties up at a pier in Quivera basin or near the Bahia, that San Diego PD is there, ready to interdict the ship.”

Iannacito says these scenarios show where defense technology intersects with homeland security.

Lieutenant Luke Taylor of the New Zealand Navy presides over an enormous map where an Italian tracking software keeps tabs on 17,000 merchant ships. Taylor points to one vessel of interest heading toward San Diego.

“The intelligence that we received suggested that she conducted a high seas transfer of a nuclear warhead in the Pacific,” Taylor says.

Taylor has already established what damage this ten kiloton warhead would cause if the vessel entered San Diego Bay and detonated. “That’s 75 percent total destruction. Depending on the wind direction, that could affect Naval Air station North Island or potentially the Navy base. It would certainly shut down the harbor for a considerable period of time, and there would be a quite a few civilian casualties in that area as well. That’s why we are quite concerned about this particular vessel.”

If communication lines are open, Taylor’s ability to track the ship hundreds of miles before it reaches shore could save many lives.

San Diegans had first-hand experience in the 2003 and 2007 wildfires of the delays that can happen when civilian authorities work with the military. Mobilizing military aircraft to fight the flames took well over 24 hours.

But Carmela Keeney, director of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, says things are changing.

“In the past” Keeney says, “there were definitely stovepipes, we call them 'cylinders of excellence,' working within their own domain, independently, not worried about communicating or sharing with other organizations. But every day that goes by, more and more, there’s an increased demand and need to share information, cooperate with other communities, whether it’s coalition -- other countries -- or within the military organizations or other government agencies, and then the local and first responders.”

San Diego won $16 million this year from the Department of Homeland Security. Most of that money will be spent on what’s known in the biz as “interoperable communication systems.” In other words, new radios that let different agencies talk and send data to each other.

But Dr. Erik Frost, co-director of SDSU’s Visualization Center, says though those systems cost millions, much of the data can easily be translated to very familiar platforms, like Google Earth, Facebook and Twitter.

“A lot of those same technologies that they’re showing here, you could take that same application and have it so it’s working for millions of people who could be using it as well.”

San Diego residents are benefiting from low-cost applications of high-tech advances. For example in 2007, reverse 911 calls were seen as a major breakthrough to alert residents to evacuation orders. Now, the county’s Office of Emergency Services’ free Twitter feed is likely to spread the word of a fire’s location even faster than the old fashioned phone call.

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