In today’s emergency environment, responders are increasingly threatened by natural and man-made disasters that task both resources and funds. From a building fire caused by an electrical short to a full-scale emergency such as regional flooding, responders are challenged to rapidly provide the best possible care in varying environments.
Under these conditions, responders and victims are operating under high stress without proper shelter or supplies. If an emergency takes place in a remote area, power, air conditioning or heating, shelter, and medical supplies will be needed. Local hospitals will be faced with a surge of casualties that will quickly exceed the capacity of nearly any medical facility. This would be particularly true in the case of a biological outbreak or influenza pandemic, when existing beds will not be enough to handle a large influx of patients.
Rather than place patients in the open air and subjected to the elements, or hastily erecting make-shift tarps, more and more hospital facilities, public health agencies, and emergency departments are purchasing “turn key” soft-walled shelter systems. These systems allow responders and receivers to quickly set up or take down a complete soft-walled system that includes power, environmental control, lighting, cots, and, in many cases, the medical equipment used to treat patients. The systems are easy to set up and can be folded down to a manageable storage size that can be put away or taken to an emergency scene via existing facility vehicles.
To meet the demand for quality in the face of adversity, the future of these shelters is expanding to include high-tech fabrics, energy-efficient technology, and increased durability.
High-Tech Fabrics There is an urgent need for shelters that use high-tech fabrics, such as materials treated with insect repellent and those that are resistant to chemical and biological agents. For example, in the aftermath of some of the more destructive hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast in recent years, insect control, though generally taking a back seat in the media to home loss, was an issue that contributed not only to the general discomfort of victims, but increased instances of illness. Producing structures that include insect-repellent qualities will minimize this risk.
Self-decontaminating textiles that use the reactivity of nanoparticles to decontaminate chemical agents are also being developed as more and more agencies and departments are seeing the need for portable decontamination units. These fabrics act as chemical-agent indicators by changing color when a chemical agent is present. Portable isolation units that include air filtration and positive/negative air pressure to push out biological contaminants and bring in clean air are already on the market and being used by various agencies.
More Energy-Efficient Technology Energy-efficient technologies include digital equipment that will allow mobile generators that power equipment to reduce fuel consumption and increase power efficiency. Newly emerging products to the field incorporate: automatic start/stop features to allow for more efficient generator function; load sharing to allow users to connect multiple generators together; and power-management systems that turn off low-priority loads as needed. This means that a mobile incident command post or mobile surge facility will use only the amount of power it needs to operate, no more, no less.
Additionally, well insulated portable facilities will have better thermal efficiency, thereby significantly reducing the requirement for power to maintain a comfortable working environment. Some studies have shown that management of a mobile power grid, combined with technical fabrics, can reduce fuel consumption by a minimum of forty percent. At a time when excess use of energy means money, as well as a drain on the environment, these new efficiency systems are the wave of the future.
More Durable Structures Often, in a large-scale emergency, the durability level of a product may mean the difference between life and death. Shelters that can withstand 60-70 mph gusts of wind or heavy, driving rain stand a much better chance of providing patients and caregivers alike with protection from the elements than hastily erected tents that might blow away at any time. Advanced designs for frames have revolutionized the shelter industry, allowing for increased strength and durability, while simultaneously having less weight and improved portability.
In the last few years, the soft-walled shelter industry has even gone beyond the scope of what is needed by responders to include enhancements to fabrics that allow for ballistic protection, better security for electronic signals, and solar energy control. Much of the research behind such technology is being conducted by military suppliers in an effort to enhance the soldier’s presence in the battlefield. First responders can only benefit from these technological advances as they make their way into the public arena.
____________________________ Ron Houle is the Vice President of Government Relations for DHS Systems LLC, manufacturer of the Deployable Rapid Assembly Shelter (DRASH). Ron is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and holds two Masters Degrees from Stanford University and a Masters of Science in National Security Studies from the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. Before coming to DHS Systems, Ron served for over 24 years in the U.S. Army, with assignments in the Army’s Office of Legislative Liaison at the Pentagon and as the Chief of Staff at the National Headquarters of the American Red Cross.