Building a Better Evacuation

USF transportation researchers patent new technologies to turn cell phones into storm and emergency aids.



From l-r, Philip Winters, Nevine Georggi, Sean Barbeau., Rafael Perez and Miguel Labrador.      Photo: Aimee Blodgett | USF News


By Vickie Chachere

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (June 1, 2012) – Anyone who has ever endured a hurricane evacuation knows what a low-tech event it can be.


Evacuation zones and maps are printed on paper. Local emergency operations centers and broadcasters bear the heavy burden of disseminating information and old-fashioned phone banks get pulled together to answer residents’ questions. When it comes to crunch time in getting people out of harm’s way, it’s often a sheriff’s deputy or firefighters who get sent around with bull horns to rouse the last stragglers from an evacuation zone.


But at the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research, the future of hurricane evacuations looks considerably brighter.


Imagine the cell phone you keep with you at all times not only alerts you that you’re in an evacuation zone, but automatically provides you with real-time information on what’s the least congested evacuation route to take.


While you’re on your way to higher ground, you too could participate in keeping your neighbors safe by taking pictures that evacuation officials would find helpful to manage the complex system, like traffic tie-ups or damage from hurricane head winds. And when it’s time to return to your neighborhood, you could easily provide response crews with images and geographic information on everything from downed traffic signs and power lines to destroyed homes – all with no other tool than your cell phone.


With a series of new technologies, USF researchers are creating ways for residents to be active participants in emergency response.


CUTR researchers Sean Barbeau, Philip Winters and at team of software developers and engineers at the


Location Aware Information Systems Laboratory have been granted six new U.S. patents on wireless technology and have another 11 U.S. and international patents pending on various technologies, including some that will allow cell phones to become advanced, individualized emergency management tools.


With seven licenses to industry, some of the technologies are in the process of becoming ready for market, not quite to the end of a seven-year research and development process that started even before the advent of smart phones.


"Nowadays, people expect their cell phones to do a lot of things," Winters said. "There are a lot of high-tech solutions to emergency management, but what we wanted to do was figure out how do you leverage high tech solutions - the eyes and ears of the public - in an emergency situation."


The focus on using cell phones as a new emergency management tool stems from the 2005 terrorist attacks on the London transit system, the researchers said. The emergency was one of the first where individuals took it upon themselves to use their cell phones to document damage and injury and communicate this information to the media.


But there were two challenges: the first, the media had to relay the information to law enforcement, preventing law enforcement from being able to directly contact the individuals who took the photos and, second, a false report of a bomb blast at one location wasted precious time and resources.


Barbeau and Winters started thinking. What if the process was more automated and dispatchers could receive groups of pictures from the public tagged with GPS coordinates so there was no question where the damage was located? What if responders could respond to the person sending the photo so they could gather additional information, if necessary? And what if emergency management officials could also target cell phone users who were in the most danger with location-based messages, rather than widely broadcasting a message and causing unnecessary panic?


About the same time, the CUTR team began working with the Sprint-Nextel Application Developer Program, allowing the apps they developed to be tested on a major carrier. Their new projects, however, are carrier neutral while Sprint remains a supporter of their research.


The first big breakthrough came in 2008, with the development of the Travel Assistance Device that makes it easier and safer for people with disabilities to navigate public transportation. Since then their new technologies have blossomed as they have pursued a vision of giving people real-time control over their travel environment, which on an everyday basis saves both time and money.


With an additional focus on weather emergencies, Barbeau said their aim is to make the dissemination and reporting of emergency conditions easier for all, but especially those who are particularly vulnerable in storms such as the disabled and the elderly.


"Our technology is very simple - you press a button and it tells you what you need to know based on your real-time location," Barbeau said. "You can even tie it into a particular shelter: here’s the one that serves special needs or is pet friendly, and here’s the easiest way to get to it."


The technologies developed by the research team and patented are:


  • On-Demand Emergency Notification System Using GPS-Equipped Devices: an emergency locator system adapted for Global Positioning Systems-enabled wireless devices. GPS technology and Location Based Services are used to determine the exact location of a user and communicate information relating to the emergency status of that location, such as the status of a hurricane evacuation for a particular zone. The user initiates the locator application via a wireless device and their physical location information is automatically transferred to a server. The server then compares the user's location with Geographic Information System maps to identify the emergency status associated with their location. Once the server has calculated the current emergency status, the information is automatically returned to the user, along with emergency instructions.
  • Wireless Emergency-Reporting System: a method of providing emergency related information to and from a centralized location over a wireless network. The method creates a high-tech "neighborhood watch" function allowing law enforcement access to the many "eyes and ears" of the public simultaneously via available cell phones. Cell phones with embedded digital cameras allow the instant capture and remote submission of suspicious circumstances to law enforcement through pictures or video.
  • Dynamic Ridematching Algorithm: uses spatial analysis techniques to locate matches (e.g., for carpools). Specifically, the use of a shortest path solver enables the ride-matching method to perform a search along the path of a user's trip, in addition to the customary radial search around the endpoints. The shortest path is calculated between the user and the match, and can even find its way around barriers.
  • The Travel Assistance Device: helps individuals use transit systems and helps transit agencies reduce the cost of door-to-door service by making the existing fixed route system more usable. The device is particularly suited to help individuals with intellectual disabilities successfully navigate the transit system through cues that are delivered through the device. It also allows guardians, family or responsible friends to keep track of an individual while they are on the move.
  • Method of Providing a Destination Alert to a Transit System Rider: an algorithm that is used in the Travel Assistance Device mobile app that alerts a transit system rider that their destination is approaching and prepares them for the stop. It can be used to allow people with disabilities to more safely use public transportation on a daily basis or in the event of an emergency.
  • A GPS "Auto-Sleep" function, also called "Optimizing Performance of Location-Aware Applications Using State Machines:" The technology solves one of the major challenges in tracking individual travel behavior via cell phones, the heavy drain on battery life.  The technology adjusts software parameters in Location-Based Service applications in real-time based on environmental conditions and application requirements and makes them easier and less costly to use.


Vickie Chachere can be reached at 813-974-6251.