Group Plans Next-Generation Disaster Relief

January 2009
By Henry S. Kenyon

The STAR-TIDES research group collaborates with a number of companies, such as the manufacturers
of this inflatable satellite dish,
to provide low-cost solutions
to support government and nongovernment disaster relief organizations.
Open-source technology and techniques open new avenues for aid organizations.

An international research group is promoting the use of affordable, sustainable technologies to support stressed groups of people in the wake of natural and manmade disasters. These methods include the use of commercial shelters, water purification systems, solar power and lighting that can be rapidly acquired in bulk and shipped to a stricken area. By working across the government-civilian spectrum of agencies, organizations and nonprofit entities, the group seeks to create open-source resource templates that can be accessed by disaster management personnel.

One goal of the Sustainable Technologies, Accelerated Research-Transportable Infrastructures for Development and Emergency Support (STAR-TIDES) advisory group is to serve as a clearinghouse for information about technologies and applications that can be used to support disaster relief and post-war recovery efforts.

STAR-TIDES has operated for a little more than a year, but its origins date back to 2000, says Linton Wells, a member of the organization’s advisory group. The Strong Angel disaster preparedness exercises (SIGNAL Magazine, November 2006) were the predecessors of STAR-TIDES. Wells notes that he participated in the Strong Angel exercises when he was assistant secretary of defense for command, control, communications, computers and intelligence and networks and information integration in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Wells explains that these early exercises impressed him with the importance of civil-military interaction. It was necessary to reach out beyond joint force communications during disaster relief operations. He says that many of the lessons learned from Strong Angel led to STAR-TIDES. These lessons include understanding how civilian and military medical support intersects in major refugee flows, cross-cultural information sharing in civil-military operations, and restarting communications and societal functions in the wake of a major disaster.

Wells emphasizes that STAR-TIDES is not a traditional fixed organization. It is a “starfish” network, a decentralized group designed to tap into and share the enthusiasm of its members. The heart of STAR-TIDES is a global network of several hundred people from Iceland to Singapore who are interested in disaster relief. These individuals are contacted for ideas, which are then applied to real-world situations.

STAR-TIDES does not operate in the field. Wells declares that its goals are to help decision makers and personnel on the ground and to connect people with problems to individuals with solutions. Although it is an internationally distributed organization, much of its work is coordinated out of the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at the National Defense University, Washington, D.C.

STAR-TIDES is now in its third phase. The group’s first phase was  October 2007 to January 2008. This included initial demonstrations, environmental testing and proof-of-concept validation. The second phase ran from January to September 2008 and included continuing demonstrations and participation in multiple exercises. The group also began analysis to finish the first environmental testing of shelters. The goals for phase three, which began in October 2008 and runs to September 2009, are to extend its infrastructure and regional analysis to develop scenario-based solution sets, initiate and expand long-term partnerships, and begin education programs. “We’re interested in seeing solutions built and delivered that meet the needs of the people on the ground that have to live with them. We’re not interested in building a solution that will have to go into a military depot or in an aid organization warehouse,” Wells says.

To attain these goals, STAR-TIDES representatives are meeting with aid groups and organizations to understand their needs and to determine what the U.S. government and international bodies can provide in the way of resources, Wells notes. The group also is developing its policy, doctrine and operating procedures as well as legal and resource issues. He notes that the average refugee stays in a camp for seven years. Because of these varying stay periods and their corresponding resource requirements, a long-term solution will be different from one focused on meeting immediate needs in the first 60 days after an earthquake.

Wells explains that STAR-TIDES is continuing to develop its expertise and capabilities. The group is currently creating a knowledge repository of equipment and capabilities. He reports that a search discovered more than 75 different types of shelters that are less expensive than military tents. The process now is creating parameters to measure what is required for a shelter under a range of conditions, from the tropics to arid and cool climates.

Besides availability, technologies must operate with existing standards. For example, in Central America and most of the United States, Web EOC is the disaster management software of choice. Wells explains that any solution developed for use in these regions must be able to interoperate with this software. Another important item often forgotten in flyaway kits is phone-bridging equipment to allow equipment to interoperate with local command and control systems. This also avoids imposing a foreign system on people in the middle of a crisis, he says.

Another aspect involves the mechanisms to move supplies to where they are needed. One example would be to access U.S. government stockpiles from agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security in the continental United States, and the U.S. Agency for International Development or the military for overseas relief. Another possibility is accessing non-U.S. stockpiles of supplies, either through the United Nations, nongovernment organizations (NGOs) or host governments. A third option is the commercial supply chain. “If you can get Wal-Mart to deliver 10,000 shelters within 24 hours within 100 miles from a store, that’s a good solution. It keeps the military from having to spend money,” he says.

Among its various efforts, STAR-TIDES is working with the One Laptop Per Child organization, which is providing $200 laptop computers to educate children in the developing world. Wells says that the group has contacted game designers to write game-based educational software that will allow children to help their families withstand the types of disasters common to their regions. For example, a Southeast Asian module would warn about seeking higher ground when a tsunami strikes, how to identify an incoming tsunami, and how to seek food, water and medical care in the aftermath.

STAR-TIDES also is developing methods to vet equipment and procedures. Wells notes that the organization continues to refine and develop scenario-based solution sets. He explains that he has received comments that STAR-TIDES should resemble an Underwriters Laboratories for disaster relief equipment, but he admits that the group does not have the capability to do so at the moment because it is mostly a volunteer project.

In 2007, the group provided advice to civil and government groups during the massive brush fires that affected the San Diego area. Wells notes that STAR-TIDES members were informed that NASA operates Predator unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with multispectral imagers. He explains that at the time, parts of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Northern Command were unaware of this capability. Wells contacted the Defense Department and worked through the chain of command to inform the military of the capability. He notes that the use of multispectral imagers allowed vital supplies to support firefighting crews in a timely manner.

Later in 2007, a cyclone struck Bangladesh. A common aftereffect of such storms in the developing world is cholera outbreaks caused by salt water and sewage that contaminate drinking water. STAR-TIDES located methods used to measure the boundaries where salt water has contaminated water supplies. Wells shares that this detection provides doctors with up to 10 days warning of areas where cholera outbreaks are likely to occur.

The Sustainable Technologies, Accelerated Research-Transportable Infrastructures for Development and Emergency Support (STAR-TIDES) group seeks to find and vet affordable products such as power systems, shelters, solar ovens and water purifiers, which can be used to help populations in disaster-stricken regions.
Wells relates that government feedback to STAR-TIDES’ efforts has been quite positive, noting that a number of high-ranking U.S. commanders have found the group’s home page and demonstrations valuable. He reports that a recent event at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., created a satellite communications center where hours before there had been an empty field. Power for the event was provided by solar panels with wind turbine generator backup. Purified water was drawn directly from the Potomac River. All of the food at the gathering was cooked in solar ovens and high-efficiency wood stoves. “This is not just PowerPoint, this is stuff on the ground that works,” he says.

All of the material at the demonstration is available for use. However, Wells notes that the current events show only a few shelters, generators and ovens. In early 2009, the group’s goal is to meet with corporations, establish scenario sets, and arrange to have some thousands of items ready on short notice. “We’re not going to buy these. But everything we’re doing is off the shelf. None of it is vaporware; the idea is that it has to be able to work in the field now,” he says.

Of the various technologies that STAR-TIDES has examined for disaster relief, the most versatile has been light-emitting diode (LED) lighting. Wells explains that this lighting uses very little power, but is very bright. He notes that in refugee camps, all activity ends when the sun sets. The group is examining several different infrastructure models. One is for each family unit to receive six or eight AA batteries. These batteries can be used for powering lighting, fans or radios. When the batteries run out, they can be turned in for recharging or replacement. Besides using a solar-powered recharging station to charge batteries, there are human-powered systems that use foot pedals to charge batteries. He notes that solar power is not necessary if manpower can be used.

Wells explains that this relief model would house families in single-family shelters. Cooking would be provided in solar ovens or high-efficiency wood stoves, and families would have their own lighting. Small purifiers would provide water purification. He notes that there are a number of models, including some built around entire villages.

Fuel-efficient cooking is another technology STAR-TIDES is studying. The group initially examined solar ovens, but because constant sunlight is not assured, it began looking at high-efficiency wood stoves. One potential solution is a combination of solar ovens, wood stoves and heat-retaining baskets—wicker baskets that can insulate a hot pot to preserve its heat for evening meals. Instead of open-pit fires, the combined use of these techniques cuts fuel use between 75 to 90 percent, he says.

In heavily deforested countries such as Haiti or Afghanistan, or in regions such as Darfur where camps sit in the middle of a growing circle of deforestation, fuel efficiency is a serious problem, he says.

STAR-TIDES is developing four operational scenarios for 2009. These are long-term capacity building and refugee support in sub-Saharan Africa, stabilization and reconstruction in eastern Afghanistan, supporting the civil authorities in the U.S. capital region for manmade and natural disasters, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in tropical regions.

In the near future, Wells says he would like to select a few regional scenarios and outline them thoroughly, rather than working on multiple projects. From this, STAR-TIDES will create templates that will enable groups to develop reasonable approximations of equipment requirements for particular environments. The goal is to develop the information for use by any interested party. “Eventually, I would like to have it to the point where almost anybody with a modest amount of knowledge could take the information we have and begin to apply it,” he says.

Wells also wants STAR-TIDES to remain small and flexible, rather than become a fixed bureaucracy. The network structure allows people and information from a variety of sources to share data and techniques. All of this data is posted on the group’s Web site, which he hopes to develop as a wiki to create feedback from people in the field. The wiki also would allow operational steps to be modified by the user community. “I’d like to see this as a more useful knowledge-sharing tool that has some experience under its belt in a wide variety of situations that can be made available to others,” he says.

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