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In the nation’s new era of unexpected catastrophes, a model center at Pitt is working to prepare planners, emergency workers, and government leaders for what might come next.


Ready or Not


Allison Schlesinger


  Matthew Kelley inside the real Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh. (Tom Altany photo)
 

Matthew Kelley stands before what appears to be a cavernous European castle in downtown Pittsburgh. He’s looking at the
nearly 120-year-old Allegheny County Courthouse on Grant Street in the heart of the city. He decides to explore the building, moving past Romanesque arches and solemn stone walls. Once inside, he roams several hallways, quietly crossing the stark tile floors. He peers out of the building’s arching windows, playfully drags a trash bin out of place, then strolls around the central courtyard’s fountain, gazing at its undulating water.

It seems real enough—when Kelley is immersed in the exercise. But he’s actually sitting in a windowless, second-floor classroom in the University’s School of Information Sciences, a few miles from the real courthouse. The room’s only light comes from several floor-to-ceiling screens that form a U on three walls at the front of the room. As Kelley manipulates a joystick, computer-controlled projectors shine shifting images onto the huge screens, allowing him to peruse a virtual replica of the Allegheny County Courthouse, inside and out.

The exercise has implications far beyond this small Pitt classroom.
Kelley (SIS ’01, CAS ’00), an information sciences graduate student and PhD candidate, has helped to create this Virtual Theatre within the school’s Visual Information Systems Center (VISC)—just one of many activities associated with Pitt’s Center for National Preparedness.

A systems analyst, Kelley is one of hundreds at the University who are working to prepare first-responders for the next national disaster. Tools like the Virtual Theatre are part of an arsenal that can help prepare emergency workers—police officers, firefighters, EMS responders—for catastrophes such as the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001. Virtual preparation also aids decision makers, including mayors and governors, in planning for and reacting to potential disaster situations.

This is what makes Pitt’s cutting-edge Virtual Theatre far more than a next-generation video game. The virtual courthouse could be used to help firefighters check out the building’s exits, locate utility sources, and get to know the layout of the structure without taking a real-world field trip. They could test dozens of emergency scenarios without alarming courthouse visitors or disrupting a business day.

To create the theater, Kelley and other VISC researchers used a software modification called CaveUT to customize a program created by Epic Games. They combined it with a floor plan of the Allegheny County Courthouse to produce a finely detailed rendering of the building.

Ken Sochats (KGSB ’75, ENGR ’73G, ’69) directs VISC and is one of three codirectors of the Center for National Preparedness (CNP). He expects that, one day soon, emergency workers will use the immersive
virtual environment to become familiar with local buildings like hospitals, schools, and government offices so they’re prepared for potential emergencies such as bomb threats or hostage situations. VISC researchers have also used the Virtual Theatre to generate and explore places and objects that are off limits—for instance, a nuclear reactor head.

Now, they’re working to refine their system and develop a cost-effective way to recreate the interiors and exteriors of buildings around the country. Once that happens, the Virtual Theatre could be marketed nationally to help firefighters, police officers, and other first-responders in big cities and small towns alike.

VISC’s advances in virtual environments are part of a sprawling field of research that falls under the umbrella of the CNP, a multidisciplinary think tank that encourages collaboration on national preparedness issues within and beyond the University.

According to George E. Klinzing, vice provost for research and the driving force behind CNP’s formation, the think tank supports research that studies what he calls “high-consequence events,” such as floods, hurricanes, explosions, bioterrorism attacks, or any other natural disaster or man-made catastrophe. Center-supported projects not only consider possible responses to these sorts of events but also study disaster prevention, protection, and recovery.

CNP’s overall goal, says Klinzing, is to provide the most up-to-date research and resources to first-responders, such as paramedics and firefighters, as well as to those who oversee them, such as elected and appointed officials.

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, says Klinzing, the University realized it had untapped resources that could help the nation recover from such attacks, prepare for other disasters, and prevent catastrophes. VISC, for instance, works on various government projects related to national security. The School of Medicine educates doctors on how to care for people injured in disasters, including bioterrorist and nuclear attacks, and the Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH) operates the Center for Public Health Preparedness (CPHP)—a program that receives significant support from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The vice provost for research recognized that, here at Pitt, we had a lot of people doing a lot of work which could be helpful, but it was disjointed,” says Sochats, who is also an assistant professor in the School of Information Sciences. “Pitt really needed a focal point to bring all these people together and help them find each other.”

 
 
  George E. Klinzing, vice provost for research (Tom Altany photo)
 

To ensure a multidisciplinary approach, Klinzing selected three co-directors from different corners of Pitt’s campus. Along with Sochats, the CNP leaders are: Margaret Potter, GSPH associate dean for public health practice, associate professor of health policy and management, and CPHP director; and Bernard J. Hibbitts, professor and associate dean for communications and information technology in the law school.

So far, 10 University schools—with a vast range of expertise in more than 50 disciplines—participate in the center, advancing current projects as well as fostering new collaborations to assist the federal government in national disaster response. In fact, CNP-affiliated researchers campuswide are attracting millions of dollars in government funding, much of it from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

While CNP coordinates efforts within the University, it also reaches out to other institutions and organizations. The center’s academic partners include Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pennsylvania, West Virginia University, and the University of Florida. It works, too, with groups such as the United Negro College Fund Special Programs, the Air Force Research Laboratory, and the Pittsburgh Regional Business Coalition for Homeland Security.

The results are projects that draw on all possible resources to help make the nation safer. Case in point: the medical school, the engineering school, and VISC are working together to develop a computer model to explore disaster scenarios. Carey Balaban, a Pitt professor of otolaryngology who’s involved with the project, describes the new model as a hybrid of military logistics and a computer strategy game.

His description conjures up an image of an industrialized version of the game SimCity, but the playing board for this modeling exercise consists of a city’s transportation and communication networks and allows participants to test different real-life disaster scenarios.

Users consider a setting (Pittsburgh, for example), think of a probable high-consequence event (such as a flood), and then flesh out as many “what-if” scenarios as possible. In a flooded Pittsburgh, for instance, users might examine how waterlogged roads would affect rescue and evacuation efforts. They might study historic flood lines to figure out which buildings would be critical in search-and-rescue operations. They might also run through a number of secondary emergencies that could occur after the initial flooding, such as scenarios with looting or diseased and polluted water supplies.

This approach to disaster management is an extension of the “Pittsburgh Matrix” for managing health care resources, designed by Michael Allswede of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Samuel J. Watson, a bioterrorism expert and GSPH associate professor of public health practice. It also incorporates the simulation know-how of Bopaya Bidanda and Larry Shuman, both professors and administrators in the School of Engineering. “The center focuses on research that bears on this pressing national problem of disaster response,” says CNP codirector Potter,“and translates that research into usable information for professionals.”

When Pitt’s disaster modeling program is unveiled later this year, says Klinzing, it will help fire departments, police departments, and other emergency organizations communicate effectively and work together on disaster plans.

The center’s outreach is taking other forms, too, like a monthly seminar series in which national experts discuss the latest research in emergency medicine, computer network security, and other national preparedness-related topics. In March, for instance, Professor Kevin R. Murphy of Pennsylvania State University discussed how researchers are studying ways to automatically detect abnormal, unexpected, or furtive behavior. In other words, they’re trying to create automated systems that do what a nosy neighbor would do—notice something unusual.

The presentation led to a wide-ranging discussion of how such research relates to culture, statistical probability, and even marketing analysis. The monthly seminars amount to a sharing of knowledge among experts that’s bound to improve future disaster response tools.
Mike Comiskey, the executive director of the Pittsburgh Regional Business Coalition for Homeland Security, says he and others in the field would never know about such research if it weren’t for CNP: “The center is keeping the subject matter alive and on people’s minds. It’s a great benefit, because there is no other place where I can participate like this.”

Back in the Virtual Theatre, Matthew Kelley glances over his shoulder. “Do any of you get motion sickness?” Kelley asks a few others in the room. They all say no, but he cracks open the classroom’s door before continuing his demonstration in case anyone needs to make a hasty exit. That’s how real the Virtual Theatre feels. With the country facing an age of terrorism, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the latest round of killer tornados, and the approaching eye of a new hurricane season, the more real the preparation for the next disaster, the better.

 

 

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