Researchers collaborate on 911 disaster response management

When you dial 911 to report an emergency, the software that manages the response to your call is the last thing on your mind. But a new collaborative project between researchers at York University and industry supplier CriSys Limited promises to create a next-generation artificial intelligence platform that will help emergency workers to efficiently and effectively respond to disasters such as major fires, floods and building collapses.

CriSys Limited is a supplier of call-handling and dispatch systems and support services for the public and private sector, with offices in Toronto and Washington. The project is funded through the GEOIDE Network (GEOmatics for Informed DEcisions), which supports the Canadian geomatics industry with backing from the Network Centres of Excellence program, 

Led by York Professor Ali Asgary (right) in the School of Administrative Studies, Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, the project will create an artificially intelligent reasoning platform to support disaster preparedness and disaster response management software, with the goal of improving emergency response in Canadian communities.

The project is part of a larger research collaboration to develop an artificial intelligence system to manage responses to building fires. Funded by Precarn – an independent not-for-profit company that supports the pre-commercial development of leading-edge technologies in Canada – the collaboration includes York, CriSys, Ryerson University and the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs.

"Existing emergency systems don’t make use of the vast amount of rich data that is available to them," says Asgary. "We need software that better understands the nature and extent of an emergency situation so that it can actively assist the human 911 operators in making the best possible decisions. Creating such a system will be a significant step toward minimizing loss of life and mitigating property losses in major disasters."

Staff from CriSys Limited will contribute their experience in modelling sophisticated computer systems for fire departments, police forces and emergency medical services. The project team expects to have a prototype system ready for testing within two years. More than a dozen cities across Canada that currently use CriSys software will then test the prototype in live environments.

Left: The project is one piece of a larger research collaboration to develop an artificial intelligence system to manage responses to building fires

"As society becomes more interconnected, the full implications of a major emergency become more extensive and more widespread," says Dale Paus, president of CriSys Limited. "Police and fire agencies need computer systems that can better manage these complexities by having an understanding of the situation and its potential effects on all aspects of the community. By pairing researchers and graduate students with industry practitioners with real-world experience, we’re creating a strong foundation for such a system."

The research will involve graduate students in York’s Disaster & Emergency Management Program, the only graduate program of its kind in Ontario and one of only two in Canada. The program equips students with the skills and competencies required to prepare for, mitigate, respond to, and recover from local, national and international disasters and emergencies.

"This collaboration exemplifies the network-building that is a hallmark of York’s interdisciplinary approach while allowing the University to grow its strengths in disaster management and computer science," says David Dewitt, associate vice-president research, social sciences and humanities. "Projects like this demonstrate the impact research has on the private and public sectors, and contribute to economic competitiveness through innovation."