In 2012, Superstorm Sandy left over 1.1 million residents without power throughout New York state. For Con Edison, one of the nation’s largest electricity providers, recovery efforts were more logistically difficult than those carried out in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks––five times larger than any previous blackout the company had ever experienced.
Since Sandy, many public officials have warned of deep problems with utility preparedness for handling disaster events in municipalities large and small across the country.
In the aftermath of a coastal natural disaster, even one much smaller in size and scope than Sandy, large quantities of debris can bury utility facilities such as gas valves, manhole covers, fire hydrants and junction boxes, making recovery slow, expensive and dangerous.
Most utilities still use paper maps to record the locations of these facilities, and without widespread cooperation among utilities, cities, and emergency management agencies, recovering those assets is arduous to say the least.
Using IT to improve disaster recovery for utilities
A report published by the National Academies Press found that IT tools can allow for faster, better decision making following a disaster while helping those in the relief effort keep better track of the details involved in all phases of disaster management (Rao et al., 2007).
Even more importantly, the report’s conclusion highlighted IT’s “substantial, unrealized potential” for handling disasters and a growing need to develop IT applications designed specifically to do just that.
To avoid falling into the lazy assumption that technology is some kind of cure-all to the problem, disaster management researchers set out to test how two IT systems––GPS and radio frequency identification (RFID)––could be used to quickly locate and retrieve infrastructure assets following a real-world disaster situation. The results of the study were published in a recent paper, “The use of RFID tags to support the post-disaster recovery”.
To provide some practical context for those looking to better prepare themselves in an era of increasingly frequent natural weather events that threaten coastal communities, we’ve highlighted the key takeaways below.
GPS mapping of coastal utility facilities
To test GPS’s ability to improve recovery efforts, precise coordinates of utility assets in four Gulf Coast cities were mapped with grade differential GPS equipment, totaling 12,960 data points along 50 miles of land.
Each utility was labeled with a unique identifier which was linked to richer data sources such as the pressure, direction of flow and the physical dimensions of the asset itself. While aggregating location data from various sources into one digitized system provided a more complete and accurate map that could be used to reference locations faster, trying to recover those locations under realistic disaster conditions using handheld GPS equipment alone proved “laborious” and “not as accurate as had been hoped” since the GPS only got within a 2 to 4 foot radius of an asset.
It was estimated that using GPS by itself, it would take more than 70 days to recover all 12,960 utility facilities. These disappointing results led city stakeholders to ask researchers if other technologies might prove more successful.
RFID tags for more precise asset location
In response, the research team collaborated with Berntsen to use durable RFID-enabled tags capped with magnets to be installed alongside or above buried utility assets. These passively-powered tags were loaded with useful information that could be accessed from a handheld reader in the field, giving recovery teams details on the type of asset, its depth, nearby utilities, intersections, hazards and ID numbers.
The accompanying magnetic locator could be used to help locate the tags quickly using a simple magnetic reader. Once located, teams could avoid the need to dig through sand and debris to identify the asset as all the information could be read using the RFID reader.
Disaster recovery experiments and results
Over the course of several months, a series of experiments using a combination of GPS, RFID and magnetic locators were carried out to compare recovery times at various depths. The results showed that by using a GPS coordinate to guide recovery teams to a general area, then switching to magnetic location and RFID identification to precisely locate and identify an asset, retrieval times were cut to just 2.51 minutes on average.
Compare this to 10.47 minutes with just the magnetic reader and RFID and 14.11 minutes with GPS alone, and the difference becomes clear. In total, this combined approach allowed crews to locate 91% of the targets in the given timeframe versus 39% of the targets using magnetic locators and RFID alone and just 19% using only GPS.
Following the study, researchers recommended that these technologies be integrated into a single system, noting that further improvement could make efforts even easier.
Making that system a reality
As a result of these findings, Berntsen set out to develop a combination system that links RFID mobile readers to a survey-grade GPS locating device via Bluetooth. Today, the InfraMarker Solution Suite can link mobile RFID readers to mobile phone devices along with software that uploads data collected directly to the cloud and retrieves it for quick reference in the field.
Further experiments conducted in 2015 have shown the system to be effective in locating tags that have been buried for many years, making InfraMarker a sensible solution for long-term preparedness and modernization initiatives.
Transitioning to a more connected industry
The paper’s authors summed up the key theme of this research succinctly:
“[T]here is an opportunity for a new industry to be formed to map utility facilities, store the
information, share them across multiple partners, and recover the utility facilities quickly
after disasters using cloud-based services. It will take a sustained and large-scale effort to
map utility facilities and create digitized information for all the utilities in the country and
the development of strategies to standardize and share this information.”
As the use of IT in disaster recovery becomes stable, it will be possible to design and test experiments on the use of alternative technologies so that other researchers can replicate them and validate the results. Until then, tools like InfraMarker are making it possible to put a robust mapping and location system in place right now––the first step in a larger push towards better disaster preparedness around the world.
Click here to learn more about the InfraMarker Solution Suite or contact our team to get started putting a more effective disaster recovery system in place today.