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Predicting Disaster Response

Photo by Rachel Dowty
By studying the organizational culture of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the United States Coast Guard, as well as each organization’s response to last year’s Hurricane Katrina, a team of Rensselaer researchers has begun to develop a dynamic model of organizational processes with the capacity to predict how an organization’s culture will affect its ability to respond to an extreme event.

In the wake of Katrina, a category 5 hurricane that devastated much of the nation’s Gulf Coast region in August 2005, three Rensselaer students traveled to New Orleans to collect documents that could provide them with information about how each organization reacted to any given task during the disaster. The recovered paper trail also provided the researchers with insight into a variety of cultural and organizational characteristics that impacted both agencies’ ability to act during the disaster.

Throughout the group’s research, a vast dichotomy between the cultures of FEMA and the Coast Guard became increasingly evident, according to William “Al” Wallace, professor of decision sciences and engineering systems and principal investigator on the project. The researchers believe these cultural factors ultimately dictated how well each organization was able to carry out its function and responsibilities.

Today Wallace’s team is constructing a computer simulation that models an extreme disaster situation where decision-makers are forced to shift their attention from one dimension to another, responses often play out over long durations of time, and information demands vary between interacting response organizations.

They’ll then input a series of “what if” scenarios related to organizational structure and culture into the disaster model. Algorithms, or automated reasoning, will predict how each organization’s constraints would affect its ability to effectively react to an emergency. The organizational factors observed by the researchers while studying FEMA and the Coast Guard will be used to test the model and to set the parameters.

The researchers see the model as a diagnostic tool that could help local, state, and federal governments shed light on the vulnerability of certain organizational features.

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