Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Life-Changing Technologies: For Better and Worse

At IAEM, Rocco Casagrande discusses some dangerous ways technology could affect the future and homeland security.

Speaker Rocco Casagrande, managing director of Gryphon Scientific, discussed technologies that “could change the world” for better and worse at the International Association of Emergency Managers conference in Reno, Nev., on Oct. 30.

First, Casagrande said most life-changing or disruptive technologies couldn’t be predicted a decade prior to their breakthroughs, so looking further ahead than that can be futile. But he pointed to synthetic technology as one that would have benefits and be used to harm populations, such as the ability to acquire and catalog genetic information on people, livestock and plants.

Genetic material can be synthesized cheaply and easily, and can easily be manipulated for good use. For instance, algae could someday be used to create diesel fuel and livestock could be manipulated to produce silk in their milk.

On the negative side, biological weapons could be made to inflict greater casualties. An adversary could acquire dangerous biological agents within the United States because anyone could go online and buy materials to magnify and grow these agents.  Anthrax is 90 percent deadly if not treated, and strains could be developed that resist antibiotics. Rabies is overlooked as a weapon and could be manipulated to be used as such.

Another threat of this type of manipulation is the drugs that change an individual’s behavior could be manipulated and used on groups of people. For instance, drugs that create anxiety or sleepiness could be slipped into a population to affect its behavior. Casagrande used as an example an agent that could be sprayed on a population to make it sleepy or cowardly.

The social implications of disasters was another subject at the conference. Tom Drabek, a professor at the University of Denver, talked to emergency managers about understanding the public and virtually putting themselves in the public’s shoes to gain greater understanding. He cited, as an example, the resident who upon being asked to leave as flood waters approach says, “I’ve been here 40 years, and my house has never flooded.” That resident is looking at the situation from a different prism, and the emergency manager has to understand that and find a way to get the point across.

Drabek characterized emergency managers as “community change agents” and said it’s time for leaders to step up to the plate and make some tough decisions to reduce vulnerabilities. The decisions will be hard but not so drastic that they impinge on freedoms and self-respect.

A speaker from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) talked about children being separated from parents during disasters and of the increased role NCMEC is playing in reuniting those families. Hurricane Katrina serves as the biggest example of displaced children during a disaster, as more than 5,000 were listed as missing at one point. Three weeks after the hurricane, 2,000 children were still unaccounted for. It took seven months to reunite the last missing child with her parents, who were in Texas.

NCMEC has teams that can deploy and work with morgues, command posts, hospitals and shelters to help locate missing children. Most missing children are reunified with parents within 25 hours after a disaster, but there are factors that can delay that. For example, during Katrina parents were handing their children to public safety personnel from rooftops and people were rushing to take space on evacuation buses, causing children and parents to become separated. Once separated it was difficult to reunite.

A report, Post-Disaster Reunification of Children: A Nationwide Approach, is due to be released by FEMA soon and highlights lessons learned from myriad scenarios for future use.

Jim McKay  |  Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at jmckay@emergencymgmt.com.

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