College of LAS « Illinois

Faculty Focus

Volcanoes, Quakes, Floods, Mudslides...

Costa Rica will be ready for anything, thanks to Illinois’ input.

Marshall Scott Poole

In the summer of 1968, villagers living near the Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica noticed that temperatures were rising in the hot springs. Authorities believed that Arenal was extinct until a July 29 eruption unleashed ash, lava fragments, volcanic gases, and superheated air, which can reach mind-boggling temperatures of 1,600° F.

The eruption killed more than 80 people in three villages. Ever since that day, Arenal has been one of the world’s most active volcanoes, although no eruption since has been as deadly as the one in 1968. It’s no wonder that Costa Rica, with over 100 volcanic formations and seven active volcanoes, is part of the aptly named Pacific Rim of Fire.

In the wake of a more recent volcanic eruption in Costa Rica, burn victims were rushed to the nearest emergency room—standard operating procedure, says LAS communication professor Marshall Scott Poole. The problem is that the most severely injured victims should have been routed to the country’s central burn hospital.

This incident spurred Costa Rica to form a new emergency response system, and they have turned to the University of Illinois for assistance in designing it.

Costa Rica has four major national hospitals, 13 regional hospitals, and several hundred local clinics, says Poole, who is helping to design the system along with Kevin Franklin, executive director of U of I’s Institute for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science, and colleagues from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. Under normal conditions, Costa Rican hospitals operate independently. But when disaster strikes, the hospitals will come together as one unified “virtual organization”—a large organization tied together by information technology.

For example, Poole says, one vital element will be a system that keeps track of medical inventories in all of the hospitals. When emergency personnel begin transporting victims, they will know which hospitals can handle different patients. Doctors will also be alerted to which patients are coming and what injuries they have sustained.

Volcanoes are only one of the threats to Costa Rica, however. The country, known for its lush scenery, is also susceptible to earthquakes, mudslides, hurricanes, and floods. In 2009, for instance, an earthquake in northern Costa Rica claimed at least 34 lives.

“I saw how the Earth moved and how it took my family—my aunt, my cousin, and her babies,” one man told CNN. “It was very hard because I wanted to save them, but I couldn’t.”

Poole says the Costa Rican emergency response system will be prepared to handle any one of these disasters. But it will take a keen understanding of how large groups work—something for which Poole is internationally known.

Poole started his career by studying the dynamics of small groups and then moved on to studying how large groups adopt new forms of information technology. For instance, he examined what happened when the Internal Revenue Service adopted a new computer system to help them generate and rank new ideas. He found that people adapt new technologies to their own situation; but if they are resistant to the technology, they often adapt it in ways that actually undermine the system.

“We’re putting those lessons to work down in Costa Rica,” Poole explains. He is helping Costa Rican officials identify all of the groups who will be part of the new emergency response system and is bringing them into the planning process. “We want them involved every step of the way, so they buy into it and make the technology their own.”

Poole says large groups are often comprised of several small groups, and these groups are constantly changing and adapting over time, particularly in an emergency situation. He has observed this at work among firefighters at the U of I’s Illinois Fire Service Institute. For instance, when three teams spring into action to fight a propane fire, two teams must use their jets of water to battle the blaze, while the third group must spray down the other two teams to keep them cool.

“I’m interested in how smoothly they coordinate that,” Poole says. “What do they do to make them effective?”

Like most effective groups, firefighters coordinate these complex actions by following clearly delineated rules and procedures. But problems can arise when subgroups within the larger group have different goals and follow conflicting procedures. When police and firefighters are called to a suspicious fire, the goal of the police is to keep the crime scene from being disturbed, while firefighters simply want to put out the blaze—and that often involves stomping around on the crime scene.

In Costa Rica, they are trying to prevent these conflicts by establishing a hierarchy of goals, balancing one group’s objectives with another’s.

Another key to the Costa Rican system will be getting the groups to practice simulated emergencies together. In the Netherlands, researchers observed that when there was an overload of injured people, police and fire crews stood around while the emergency management technicians did their job. Poole says there might have been ways for the police and firefighters to pitch in if the groups had practiced together regularly.

“The technology piece is often the easy part in a new system,” he points out. “It’s the people part that is hard.”

By Doug Peterson
Spring 2010