University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering


Grant to Fund Work on State-of-the-Art Emergency Preparedness System


Erin D. McKenzie

Researchers' tool to help Houston first responders avoid flood waters

A computer-based system being developed by researchers at the University of Houston is expected to help the city’s emergency responders better navigate roads during times of flooding.

Designed to work similarly to Houston TranStar’s online traffic map, the Real-Time Houston Flood Mapping System would use colors to classify the amount of flooding present on roads near major highways within the borders of Houston’s outer loop instantaneously.

“This is huge,” said Gino Lim, Hari and Anjali Agrawal Faculty Fellow and assistant professor of industrial engineering. ”This tool will substantially improve first responder’s decision-making and their responding time. Information like that is priceless and could mean the difference between life and death.”

To do this, Lim plans to merge city and county flood databases into one comprehensive resource that will be hosted on TranStar’s website. The computer program will utilize existing cameras and rain gauges—which already feed data on water levels wirelessly to these databases—to aid in determining flood levels. 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’ using Internet on their laptop computers.

This isn’t all.

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

To ensure responders a fail-safe way of accessing maps, Lim came up with a unique idea.

He is partnering with Houston PBS to transmit a static image of the flood map via television signal. This would refresh every 10 minutes, or less, depending on the demand. The program would allow responders to download the most up-to-date image on their laptop.

“It would be almost like you are doing a software update on your computer,” he said, noting the image wouldn’t be real-time, but would offer guidance.

Lim is using the $400,700 grant from the city of Houston to construct the flood map during the course of the next two years with assistance from graduate students and researchers in the university’s Systems Optimization and Computing Laboratory and the Southwest Public Safety Technology Center.

Once the system is developed, it will undergo six months of testing by first responders beginning in June 2013, the start of hurricane season.

If all goes well, Lim said, he has hopes to expand the flood map to encompass roads spanning the entire county.



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