Virginia Tech helps to guide the U.S. in preparing for major disaster scenarios

BLACKSBURG, Va. – There are a variety of threats and major disaster scenarios that the United States has to prepare for, and thanks to researchers from Virginia Tech, Virginians and communities across the country, are a little safer.

Since 2007, the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech, under the direction of the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency, has helped analyze the complexities that are involved in calculating such disasters, according to Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech’s Biocomplexity Institute was awarded a third federal contract to continue it work after completing to successive five-year contracts to develop a system capable of simulating and analyzing complex emergency scenarios. This third five-year contract will award up to $27 million to the institute.

“There are declassified documents from as far back as 1953 with assessments of nuclear attacks on Washington, D.C.; you can easily find them online,” said Chris Barrett, executive director of the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech.

Barrett, who began his scientific career at the birthplace of the atomic bomb, Los Alamos National Laboratory, was selected by the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency to lead a new approach to National Planning Scenario 1 (NPS1). His job, to create new levels of detail to enhance the federal government’s assessment process.

He points to available documents to the public as a reason for why there is a Biocomplexity Institute and why the federal government would want to dish out millions of dollars for emergency prep for certain threats, which may not happen, but could.

The information that the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech provides to the National Planning Scenario, helps federal agencies such as FEMA to “dress rehearse” for catastrophic events, whether it be a hurricane or even a nuclear explosion. It can even help plan standards for a coordinated cyber attack against the U.S.

A reason that Barret and his team at the Biocomplexity Institute may be getting a third grant, is that the work they have done and are doing, is not slowing down or lessening in the digital age.

Part of the work that Barret and his team do revolves also around using the historically unprecedented level of data on human behavior captured by today’s mobile communication devices, social media, and web services, as well as more traditional data sources, such as the census and mobility surveys, these scientists were able to represent how survivors might respond in the immediate aftermath of an attack and the implications of their behavior to hone in on the most efficient ways to assist recovery and survival, according to officials.

“Thanks in large part to the information generated by devices like smartphones, we now have a much more detailed understanding of how a city’s population behaves day-to-day — when and where people are driving, working at the office, shopping, eating, picking kids up from school, and so on,” said Barrett. “Using this information, we can create very detailed simulations of exactly where people are likely to be in relation to a particular destructive point-in-time event, such as an IND; what resources they’d have access to; and examine how their chances of survival can be increased by the full variety of possible responses.”

Innovative scenario planing and idea creation, is something that Barret and the rest of the Biocomplexity Institute hopes will lead to helping save and protect more lives, during the worst imaginable situations.

“Our collaborators expect solutions that are smart and responsive, ready to be launched in the real world where conditions are always changing,” said Barrett. “At the Biocomplexity Institute, we’re continuing to develop synthetic populations that move, interact, and respond to stress just like a real community, so we’re prepared to find answers for nearly any scenario, no matter how complicated.”