Monday, September 27, 2010

Flood-Mapping System to Help EMS Navigate Houston Streets

Navigating rain-soaked streets is a familiar experience for Harris County residents. And while street flooding generally is a temporary nuisance for most drivers, it can be a serious obstacle for emergency responders.

However fleeting, flooding can cause traffic delays for EMS crews that are trying to reach and transport people in need of medical assistance. Minutes, even seconds, can count.

University of Houston Professor Gino Lim is trying to ease this traffic problem by developing a computer-based real-time flood-mapping system that will help emergency responders better navigate roads in bad weather.

Lim recently received a $400,700 grant from the city of Houston to build a computer program that will instantaneously classify the level of flooding on roads near major highways within the Sam Houston Parkway (State Highway Beltway 8). Similar in concept to Houston TranStar's online real-time traffic map, Lim's Real-Time Flood Mapping System will use a color-coded computer map to indicate the severity of flooding on major road segments. Red will mean that segment of road is severely flooded, while green will mean it's safe to travel the road. This technology could eventually be helpful for any large metropolitan area that frequently has to deal with flash-flooding. Limphoto

This month, Lim and his team have started to develop a database that connects to three major flood-monitoring database systems. Once the system is developed, it will undergo six months of testing, and it's expected to be in place for first responders to use by the beginning of the hurricane season in June 2013.

"This will be a major advancement," said Lim, Hari and Anjali Agrawal Faculty Fellow and an associate professor of industrial engineering at UH. "In Harris County, street flooding and the resulting traffic problems are still unresolved problems. But the inability to effectively inform and navigate emergency vehicles through flooded streets is not caused by a lack of technology but by the lack of proper integration of available technologies."

"This tool will substantially improve first responders' decision-making abilities and their response times. Information like this is priceless and could mean the difference between life and death," Lim said.

Lim's system will merge city and flood databases into one comprehensive resource that will be hosted on TransStar's website. Algorithms devised by Lim will turn this data into color-coded, visual representations of flooding on a map that can be accessed by emergency responders via the Internet on their laptops.

"During Hurricane Ike two years ago, we did a lot of testing on data transfer," Lim said. "What we found is there can be problems with wireless connections because they are reaching the maximum capacity of some towers, which makes this communication difficult."

To overcome that issue, Lim is partnering with Houston PBS to transmit a static image of the flood map via a television signal that would refresh every 10 minutes, or less, depending on demand. This program will allow responders to download the most up-to-date image on their laptops.

Lim is being assisted by Tom Chen, a UH engineering professor, and graduate students and researchers from UH's Systems Optimization and Computing Laboratory (SOCL) in the industrial engineering department, and the Southwest Public Safety Technology Center (STWC).

Lim founded SOCL, where researchers explore mathematical programming techniques to solve various optimization problems. SWTC is led by Steven Pei, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UH. SWTC is a grant-supported project dedicated to research and education in the area of public safety technology and homeland security.

For more information about SOCL, visit here.

For more information about SWTC, visit here.


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