Missouri City Staging IoT Pilot for Storm Emergency Simulations

The Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology division is working with the Open Geospatial Consortium and the City of St. Louis to develop an integrated emergency-response system that will include sensors and software to detect and respond to river floods, flash floods, fires, car accidents and stranded individuals.
Published: November 8, 2019

The City of St Louis, Mo., is preparing for a two-day smart-city pilot that will test Internet of Things (IoT)-based technologies to improve emergency responses. The December pilot, led by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology directorate and the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), will simulate five emergency scenarios resulting from heavy rains.

Eight technology companies will provide software, sensors or communication networks to aid in the simulated response. Technology used in the IoT pilot will include wireless sensors either worn by rescue personnel or installed in key locations around the city. OGC’s Smart City Interoperability Reference Architecture (SCIRA) software aims to serve as an interoperable open standard framework that can be integrated with commercially available IoT sensors for public safety applications.

Norman Speicher

The pilot will be based on a hypothetical scenario: 45 days of sporadic torrential rainfall have already saturated the ground and inundated St. Louis’s drainage systems, and a thunderstorm is expected to bring strong winds and several more inches of rain to the city. The potential scenarios that would result will test the IoT solutions in five ways: monitoring a river for potential floods, detecting flash flooding in city streets, detecting vulnerable individuals who need rescue or support, monitoring conditions within a building fire resulting from a flooded mechanical room, and identifying a vehicle accident caused by hydroplaning in standing water.

Flood sensors will be among the hardware that will be included, says Norman Speicher, DHS S&T’s program manager. Responders will wear their own sensors, while cameras will monitor traffic conditions on roadways. The specific sensor deployment has not yet been determined, but it will typically utilize wireless sensors, transmitting data via cellular networks, that will use vendor software. The resulting data will then be fed to situational-awareness software platforms, in which alerts can be displayed to notify command of rising water levels.

Technology participants include Botts Innovative Research (which will manage sensor data), software companies Compusult and Coolfire, 3D city modeling company Cyient Ltd., EcoDomus (which offers virtual indoor environment-tracking solutions), Keys (which provides physiological sensing using an Apple Watch), Skymantics (which offers optimized traffic-routing solutions) and the University of Calgary (which supplies AI-based traffic IoT sensors).

DHS S&T’s goal, Speicher says, is to aid in the development of IoT technology and integrated software that can help make cities’ emergency responses more efficient and effective, as well as ensure the safety of responders and members of the public. To accomplish this goal, the agency will assess how well existing solutions integrate and provide cities and public safety officials with the data they need to better manage their emergency-response processes.

The city will test the IoT-based technology not only to address major floods or other emergency scenarios, but also to reduce the risk of such problems occurring in the first place. The system will help to improve city operations, according to Robert Gaskill-Clemons, St. Louis’s chief technology officer. That means data collected from cameras or sensors can aid in routine tasks, such as snow clean-up, waste removal or identifying traffic congestion.

Robert Gaskill-Clemons

The agency’s ultimate goal involves emergency management, Speicher says, so it is in the process of testing “anything and everything that would help first-responders understand [an incident] between dispatch and arrival.” For instance, responders often do not know what to expect when an emergency call is placed. That means the number of people responding, the tools they bring and the necessary safety precautions need to be decided without full knowledge of what is taking place. Improving situational awareness could involve automatically capturing data regarding the presence of gas, or water breaching a river bank, as well as cameras recording footage of a police incident under way.

Speicher says DHS S&T selected St. Louis for the testing, in part, because it has been forward-thinking in its smart-city potential in the past. The city already has some sensors and cameras deployed, and it has been attending smart-city programs. In fact, Gaskill-Clemons says, “Our relationship was established through DHS sciences at conferences. We were very willing to make St. Louis available. They looked at several cities and selected us.”

In August 2019, DHS S&T completed a test of its IoT-based Next Generation First Responder (NGFR) program in Birmingham, Ala., with a focus on emergency response alone (as opposed to a full IoT smart-city deployment). During the simulation, local HAZMAT and search-and-rescue response teams participated in an earthquake scenario, which took place in Memphis, Tenn., and impacted Birmingham. First-responders were provided with body-worn cameras, arm-worn sensors that tracked their heart rates and chemical sensors that identified the presence of gas and radioactivity.

During Birmingham’s search-and-rescue efforts, unmanned aircraft systems were used to identify victims trapped underneath rubble. For the scenario’s “unified command element,” software platforms and tools were designed to identify and display where first-responders were located on the field.

In planning for the St. Louis pilot, the city and agencies have been working with technology companies to put in place the system that will be tested during the pilot. “Smart cities” is still a buzz term, Speicher says, and while technology companies are offering a variety of solutions, an open standards-based solution that can scale can be difficult to deploy. “Part of our effort,” he states, “is to expose [cities] to what is possible, what technology exists and what integration is possible.”

The pilot will also involve the creation of a 3D digital twin of the city, Gaskill-Clemons says, which will enable the viewing of a response’s results digitally before crews even arrive on the scene. The digital twin can also be used to manage the IoT devices, he adds, thereby enabling users to configure sensors, adjust the pan-tilt zoom on cameras, or change the recording intervals on a weather sensor.

The DHS funds the pilot, while the Open Geospatial Consortium has identified providers, each of which brings different technologies. During the first week of December, there will be a dry run of the exercise, and participants will get their hands on the tools so that in December, responders and managers will be familiar with them. “We will be looking at whether the technology is mature and relevant,” Speicher says, “and we will be documenting the architecture in ways other cities can reuse it.”

The point of the initiative, according to Gaskill-Clemons, is to improve the life of city residents, as well as better manage resources and be more effective in incident response. But the city’s focus is on holistic solutions rather than on single, siloed systems such as smart lighting. “We take the underlying capability approach,” he states, in order to ensure that an integrated system can help support smart-city technologies across all departments and services.