Technology for Disaster Response—Providing Aid More Safely After a Disaster

Being prepared at all times helps Tzu Chi volunteers respond better to unforeseeable disasters. New technology further enhances the efficiency of disaster assessment and response. It also prevents rescuers and helpers from becoming disaster victims themselves.

“When we learn that a fire has broken out,” said Tzu Chi volunteer Cai Ming-hong   (蔡明鴻), of northern Taiwan, “we immediately rush to the scene to assess the situation: How many fire engines have been despatched? What are the conditions of the victims? Which hospitals have the casualties been sent to?” With this information, hospital visits can be organized, emergency cash given out, and other relief efforts initiated. “There is a standard operating procedure for us to follow,” he said. Cai went on to explain that volunteers have set up group chats on messaging apps, so that information can be quickly disseminated when a disaster happens. The Tzu Chi headquarters in Hualien, eastern Taiwan, is simultaneously informed in this way.

To respond quickly to calamities such as fires and traffic accidents, volunteers need to stay alert to what is happening around them and in their communities. As for weather-related events, such as typhoons and torrential rainfalls, measures are taken based on information provided by the Central Weather Bureau.

Lu Xue-zheng (呂學正), who leads the disaster prevention team at Tzu Chi’s Department of Charity Mission Development, said: “As soon as the Central Weather Bureau issues a sea alert for a typhoon, we activate our disaster prevention protocol to make sure that every responsible volunteer is ready to be mobilized.” Tzu Chi branch offices and recycling stations will also be notified to start preparing for the storm; for example, they might start constructing sandbag barriers around building entrances to prevent water from entering. “We also assist care recipients and older people who live alone to prepare for the typhoon,” said Lu. “For example, if they live by a river or up in the mountains, we enquire if their residence is safe and if we need to help them replenish their emergency supplies.” As for evacuation from endangered areas, that’s government’s call; the government is the only authority that has the power to enforce evacuation when needed.

People are usually anxious when they are evacuated, and might neglect to bring any daily necessities with them. Sometimes they even forget to bring their payment cards with them. “This is where our volunteers come in. We visit evacuees at shelters to offer emotional support as well as to provide emergency supplies and money,” said Lu.

Disciplined Tzu Chi volunteer teams in Taiwan are known for offering organized and systematic emergency aid to disaster victims. That is what happened for the September 11, 1999, earthquake, Typhoon Morakot in 2009, Typhoon Soudelor in 2015, and the two February 6 temblors in 2016 and 2018. Local volunteers can usually handle the response to disaster events if they are on a small scale, but if a disaster is too massive and there is an inadequate number of volunteers in the stricken area to cope with the aftermath, volunteers from other areas are mobilized to help out.

Tzu Chi volunteers simulate disaster relief mobilization. By entering the address of the Tzu Chi Miaoli Campus into the Tzu Chi Disaster Prevention Information Network and setting the search area to a one-kilometer radius, they can obtain information about the number of Tzu Chi volunteers living in the designated area and other relevant data. Courtesy of Lu Xue-zheng

Drones for aerial survey

With decades of experience in disaster relief and in providing care and support to disaster victims, the Tzu Chi volunteers’ “Blue Sky and White Cloud” image (coming from the uniforms they wear—which consist of blue shirts and white trousers) has become a symbol of assurance and trustworthiness to the public. Nevertheless, it is not easy to successfully pull off each disaster relief mission. The team responsible for coordinating such operations needs the right information to correctly assess the situation and make optimal decisions. They work to make sure that the limited resources available to them can be maximized and that everyone’s safety is ensured at the same time.

Assessing damage in a disaster area where danger has not yet entirely passed is a risky task. Lu mentioned that he was once a member of a Tzu Chi team that went into a remote mountain village in Hsinchu, northern Taiwan, to assess damage after a typhoon. The roads there were known to collapse frequently. “When we reached a certain road section,” Lu said, “we found that the cars in front of us had begun to back up—a collapse had occurred in the road ahead. Soon after, we learned that another collapse had occurred in the road behind us. So, just like that, we were trapped there on the mountain road, unable to move forward or back.” He said he still shudders at the experience. They were trapped there for two hours.

Senior volunteer Luo Mei-zhu (羅美珠) shared another experience, one in which she was caught in a dilemma of whether to put the needs of disaster victims or the safety of volunteers first. In the aftermath of Typhoon Soudelor in 2015, Tzu Chi volunteers could not reach the most severely hit Old Street area in Wulai, New Taipei City, northern Taiwan, because massive mudslides had blocked access to the area. “As a result, we first spent four days helping to clean up the accessible Guishan neighborhood, also in Wulai,” Luo recalled. “Later, when I went to Old Street to survey the conditions there, I was confronted by a group of emotional villagers asking why Tzu Chi volunteers had not come to help them.” The New Taipei City government also had hoped that Tzu Chi volunteers could quickly enter Old Street and work with the military to clean up the area.

It wasn’t that Tzu Chi volunteers forgot about the villagers in Old Street or purposely neglected their needs. It was just that Old Street is situated in a narrow valley. Once the cleanup began, over a thousand volunteers would have swarmed into the area. Their safety needed to be ensured before the operation could be launched. Volunteers made three visits to Old Street to assess the situation there before deciding to start on the cleanup. “Our only condition was that we would need to stop all work if torrential rains began,” Luo said. “We had our volunteers’ safety to consider.”

Landslides, collapsed roadways, or flooding can deter volunteers on their way to assess damage or provide aid in the aftermath of a disaster and jeopardize their safety. To deal with such conditions, Tzu Chi has collaborated with the Department of Applied Geomatics at the Chien Hsin University of Science and Technology, in Taoyuan, northern Taiwan, to hold workshops on how to use unmanned aerial vehicles (“drones”) to survey a disaster area. Using a drone to survey a disaster area can improve the efficiency of disaster assessment and better ensure the safety of volunteers. The workshops also teach how to produce 3D images using images captured by a drone.

“We use miniature quadcopters, with flight ranges of less than 7 kilometers,” said Li Ji-wen (黎驥文), director of the Department of Applied Geomatics. “They can be used in smaller scale disaster assessment missions.” He explained that if a disaster assessment team wants to assess the damage to buildings after an earthquake, determine the extent of devastation in areas hit by floods, or set up a site to carry out disaster relief work, drones coupled with 3D modeling technology can be put to good use. “When an earthquake struck Hualien on February 6, 2018, we happened to have a team there,” Li said. “They participated in the rescue work by providing timely drone-collected information to the National Fire Agency.”

3D modeling technology can be employed to synthesize stereographic images using images taken by a drone from different angles. Such technology-enhanced images can provide specific details of objects or landscapes, such as those of collapsed buildings or disaster-stricken areas. The technology is a great tool for rescuers and disaster assessment personnel. It allows users to zoom in on the critical areas for clearer, better images, thus enabling better rescue coordination.

Since July 2017, the collaboration between Tzu Chi and Chien Hsin University has produced more than 50 volunteers with drone flying and 3D mapping capabilities. In ordinary times, these “pilots” use drones to document Tzu Chi community activities. When a disaster strikes, they transform into an “investigation corps” by piloting drones to conduct reconnaissance of affected areas. For example, volunteer Huang Wei-ran (黃威然), of Tainan, southern Taiwan, once put his aerial photography skills to good use when southern Taiwan was hit by massive rain-induced flooding in August 2018.

“Local residents told us we were unlikely to get to the area we were trying to reach because the two villages we had to pass through before we could reach our destination were submerged in floodwaters,” Huang recalled. Thankfully, the aerial photography skills he had acquired at workshops conducted jointly by Tzu Chi and Chien Hsin University allowed the volunteer team to overcome the challenge of traffic blockages and assess the flooding conditions remotely.

At present, the drones used by the volunteers have all been self-purchased. Even so, there has been a push to help the volunteers obtain their drone pilot licenses, a mandatory requirement taking effect in 2020, as ordained by an amendment to Taiwan’s Civil Aviation Act. “Starting next year, we must have official licenses to carry out drone-flying missions,” Director Li said. “Therefore, we need to retrain the volunteers to pass the licensing exams.”

A Tzu Chi volunteer practices operating a drone. Compared with a ground-level survey, aerial photography can help volunteers more quickly grasp the situation over a larger disaster area. The technology increases the efficiency of disaster assessment and enhances the safety of volunteers. Wang Feng-Jiao
Tzu Chi and the Chien Hsin University of Science and Technology work together to hold workshops on how to use unmanned aerial vehicles to inspect conditions in disaster areas. Under the guidance of professionals, volunteers also learn to create 3D images using images captured by a drone. Wen Qiao-hao

Using big data to reduce and avoid disaster

In addition to drones, Tzu Chi has also begun using big data to aid disaster relief work and enhance the safety of volunteers. On April 16, 2019, the Tzu Chi Foundation and the National Science and Technology Center for Disaster Reduction (NCDR) signed the Disaster Prevention Technology Cooperation Agreement in the Jing Si Hall in Xindian, northern Taiwan. Both parties also used the occasion to present their jointly developed Tzu Chi Disaster Prevention Information Network.

Chen Hong-yu (陳宏宇), director of NCDR, pointed out that the network collects and provides real-time information such as for rainfalls, flooding, typhoons, earthquakes and their aftershocks. The instant information is consolidated, via a big data platform and a computing system, into three supercomputers provided by the Ministry of Science and Technology.

The strong database behind this network system integrates the research results from government, industry, and academia over the past decade. Take typhoons, which often strike Taiwan, for example. The NCDR has collected and analyzed six decades’ worth of typhoon-related data and inputted it all into the system. The information can serve as a basis to make future predictions and help reduce and avoid disasters.

This network system can also provide very detailed real-time rainfall information at intervals of every hour, every three hours, or every six hours. This information can be provided for every county and city in Taiwan, and even for Taiwan’s outlying islands. Information about the extent of flooding in an area is also included. When volunteers can gather such data in advance, they can avoid dangers of entering deepwater zones.

“Our disaster info network has attracted global attention,” said Director Chen. “Many countries in Southeast Asia have asked us to help them build similar systems.” The director is very confident in the research results of the center, and he hopes that the collected data can be shared with everyone who needs it. “The information should be provided to all people involved in frontline disaster relief work, such as Tzu Chi volunteers,” Chen remarked.

The Tzu Chi Disaster Prevention Information Network was created especially for Tzu Chi volunteers. It presents not only instant maps of disaster locations, but also detailed information of the areas, which makes it a very handy tool for volunteers coordinating relief efforts. Take earthquake relief as an example. If volunteers want to find out about the distribution of Tzu Chi care recipients near an epicenter, or the number of Tzu Chi volunteers living near a disaster relief command center, all they need to do is to specify the radius of the area in which they are interested. The residences of the care recipients or volunteers will appear as dots within the specified perimeters on the virtual map. The disaster relief team can therefore quickly grasp on which street a care recipient lives and the extent of damage around their residences.

Yen Po-wen (顏博文), CEO of the Tzu Chi charity mission, conveyed Master Cheng Yen’s affirmation for this system: “Many frontline volunteers rush to the aid of the needy without regard for their own lives. Master Cheng Yen is very concerned about that. She doesn’t want anyone to sacrifice their life in order to save another one. Therefore, she puts a premium on this information platform and its application.”

With the help of new technologies, the safety of volunteers involved in disaster relief work can be enhanced, and the time spent on damage assessment reduced. This frees up the volunteers to do their most important work, which can only be rendered by hearts full of love: providing care and emotional support for disaster victims.

Yen Po-wen, CEO of the Tzu Chi charity mission (second from right), and Chen Hong-Yu, director of the National Science and Technology Center for Disaster Reduction (second from left), signed the Disaster Prevention Technology Cooperation Agreement on behalf of their respective organizations on April 16, 2019. Bringing charity and technology together in this way will benefit society more than each could do alone. Yan Fu-jiang


November 2019