Smartphone app can aid post-disaster rescue

Picture this: An earthquake strikes, and you’re trapped inside a damaged building. You pull out your smart phone to call for help, but you can’t get a signal. Suddenly your screen lights up, and an application starts asking questions about your condition. “Are you hurt?” “Are you trapped?” Elsewhere in the building, another victim is unconscious and unable to answer questions, but the app can tell he is lying motionless and transmit that information plus his location to emergency personnel. The information gathered from victims will help first responders organize a quick, efficient rescue operation.

Hyungchul Yoon, left, and Reza Shiftehfar display screen shots from the smart phone app they developed to assist emergency personnel in rescuing people trapped in buildings after disasters.

That’s the vision of the researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who developed the application, which they named iRescue, short for Illinois Rescue. Led by civil and environmental engineering (CEE) PhD student Hyungchul Yoon, the group includes computer science (CS) PhD student Reza Shiftehfar, CEE professor Bill Spencer Jr., CS professor Gul Agha and Beckman Institute professor Mark Nelson.

Recent disasters around the world have illuminated the need for better rescue procedures and technology to support them, Yoon said. Before developing iRescue, the team consulted with professionals at the Illinois Fire Service Institute to find out what information would be most helpful for first responders. Location and condition of victims topped the list.

“[First responders] don’t have any type of device for detecting human life inside buildings, especially in poorer countries,” Yoon said. “But everybody has a cell phone. Even if they don’t have a phone in their home, they have a cell phone.”

The iRescue app is a combination of two different applications created by Yoon and Shiftehfar: iVAS, which stands for Illinois Victim Assessment System, developed by Yoon, and iVPS, or Illinois Victim Positioning System, developed by Shiftehfar.

The first, iVAS, collects information about the victims’ condition, either with their help in the form of a series of questions or—in the case of unresponsive victims—by making use of sensors that are present already inside every smart phone. These sensors—which can detect things like the phone’s orientation, movements and speed—are ordinarily used to orient the screen for the user and facilitate the playing of games. But iVAS makes use of them to provide critical information about victims’ activities, with which emergency responders can assess his or her likely condition. For example, a victim who is unresponsive and lying motionless might be unconscious. A victim who is running is probably not gravely injured but might be panicked.

The second application, iVPS, assesses the relative strength of signals that a cell phone receives from a building’s array of wireless routers and uses the information to triangulate the person’s location. The system does require powered-on cell phones with WiFi capability and works only in buildings with wireless Internet availability, but it does not require a functioning Internet connection or cell signal.

The researchers are currently testing the system and working out details, such as the best method for transmitting the information gathered by iRescue to emergency personnel. Another question is how to get the application onto cell phones. Users could add it themselves or smart phone manufacturers could include it as a standard feature, Yoon said. One thing that is clear, Shiftehfar said, is the value of using the ubiquitous cell phone to assist with disaster response.

“We tried to shift some part of the focus from the people to the technology,” Shiftehfar said, adding that post-disaster chaos and fear can lead to a disorganized and ineffective rescue operation. “Your phone doesn’t care when there’s a disaster going on…and that small device is more powerful than the computer you used five years ago.”

Contact: Bill Spencer, Jr., Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 217/333-8630.

Writer/Photographer: Celeste Arbogast Bragorgos, director of communications, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, 217/333-6955.

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