Dealing with natural and industrial disasters

IEC Standards are key to help prevent and/or mitigate the impact of many disasters

Natural and industrial or accidental disasters can take many forms and have devastating human and material consequences. Some may be prevented or their impact mitigated through forecast, others not. Rescuing victims and repairing damage are essential for a return to normal life. Standardization work by a number of IEC technical committees (TCs) and subcommittees (SCs) may help warn of impending disasters as well as aid in assessing, repairing and mitigating their consequences. 

Endeavor Robotics 510 Packbot
Endeavor Robotics 510 Packbots are deployed in emergency situations when direct human intervention is dangerous or impossible, such as after industrial or nuclear accidents. These robots were used at the Fukushima nuclear power plant (Photo: Endeavor Robotics)

Natural, engineering or accidental disasters, often a matter of scale

Natural disasters can be considerably deadlier and more destructive than their engineering or industrial equivalents. They may result from weather-related causes (hurricanes, cyclones, storms, floods, heatwaves, blizzards, etc.), or movements at the surface of the earth that may provoke earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or tsunamis.

Natural disasters may result in industrial disasters. This was the case when heavy rainfall following a typhoon caused the collapse of the Banqiao dam in China in 1975, resulting in the immediate death of more than 25 000 and, indirectly, of 250 000 later.

This was the case also in March 2011, when an earthquake in the Pacific Ocean some 70 km east of Japan provoked a tsunami that disabled the power supply and cooling systems of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, resulting in a partial meltdown of some units of the plant. No radiation casualties occurred at the time, but the government ordered the evacuation of over 100 000 people living within a 20-30 km radius of the plant.

A major industrial accident, the April 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in northern Ukraine was the result of flawed reactor design combined with a number of errors from operators. Some 40 staff and emergency workers died within a few months from radiation-related illnesses, and some 7 000 cases of thyroid cancer in people under 18 at the time of the accident were reported.

Getting advance warning and assessing risks after disaster

Getting some advance warning of natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tsunamis, using electronic equipment may be possible in some cases. This includes:

  • laser equipment emitting beams that can detect tectonic plates movements. International Standards for equipment (including systems) incorporating lasers are developed by IEC TC 76: Optical radiation safety and laser equipment
  • seismometers which pick up, measure and record vibrations in the Earth’s crust through electronic sensors, including accelerometers, amplifiers and even lasers and interferometers in more modern optically-based devices. International Standards for a variety of sensors used in seismometers (and other devices) are prepared by IEC SC 47E: Discrete semiconductor devices. International Standards for interferometers used for the calibration of optical frequency measurement instruments, are prepared by IEC TC 86: Fibre optics
  • gas detectors which pick up increased levels of radon gas emissions escaping from cracks in the Earth’s crust. International Standards for gas detectors are developed by IEC TC 31: Equipment for explosive atmospheres

To help prevent nuclear accidents or to assess health risks in the aftermath of an accident, work by IEC TC 45: Nuclear instrumentation, and its SCs is essential. They develop International Standards for a wide range of instrumentation used in the nuclear industry, including control and electrical systems, and of the radiation protection instrumentation that is useful for controlling radiation levels in nuclear power installations, in case of accident and to prevent the smuggling of radioactive material.

IEC TC 31 and its SCs develop and maintain International Standards “relating to equipment for use where there is a hazard due to the possible presence of explosive atmospheres of gases, vapours, mists or combustible dusts.” The IEC also set up IECEx, the System for Certification to Standards Relating to Equipment for Use in Explosive Atmospheres. IEC TC 31 Standards and IECEx Certificates are internationally recognized and widely adopted by many industries. In addition, IECEx has been endorsed by the United Nations, through the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), as the recommended model for regulating the safety of equipment and persons working in areas where the potential for an explosive atmosphere may exist.

Prevention and mitigation of power outages, and recovery

Natural disasters may result in large-scale power outages. Without electricity nothing works: fresh water supply, waste water treatment, mass transportation and communication systems are interrupted. The operation of hospitals and emergency services is disrupted, homes and businesses are affected.

This was the case following the 26 December 2004 tsunami in South East Asia, the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti or hurricane Sandy, which hit the North Eastern coast of the US in late October 2012.

Power grids in some countries are more affected than in others by natural disasters. This has much to do with the nature and structure of grids, not just the frequency of natural disasters. For instance, Japan, which is regularly subjected to earthquakes and extreme weather situations, has one of the shortest outage times in the world. Even before the Fukushima disaster, the country had already invested in microgrid technology which helped it better deal with the huge challenges it faced in the wake of the earthquake and resulting tsunami. Microgrids, and smart grids are seen as useful solutions that help prevent serious power outages. The IEC White Paper Microgrids for disaster preparedness and recovery provides examples of the benefits of microgrids to mitigate the impact of disasters on power supply.

Standards are crucial in helping new disaster-resilient technologies become widespread. The IEC is doing pioneering work in the area of smart electricity, by adopting a systems-based approach, with its Systems Committee (SyC) Smart Cities and SyC Smart Energy.

Rescue efforts go high-tech

Disaster relief needs being quick and efficient. For this it relies increasingly on sophisticated high-tech systems. These include various types of robots, virtual reality (VR) tools and so-called exoskeletons that allow limb movement with greater strength and endurance, providing wearers with the capability of lifting heavy loads.

Robots to the rescue

Rapid advances in technology are revolutionizing the roles of aerial, terrestrial and maritime robotic systems in disaster relief, search and rescue (SAR) and salvage operations.

Robots and drones can be deployed quickly in areas deemed too unsafe for humans and are used to guide rescuers, collect data, deliver essential supplies or provide communication services.

Drones and robots have been used to survey damage after disasters such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident in Japan in 2011 and the earthquakes in Haiti (2010) and Nepal (2015). Up to now, more than 50 deployments of disaster robots have been documented throughout the world, according to the Texas-based Center for Robot‑Assisted Search & Rescue (CRASAR).

Head of CRASAR Robin Murphy says that robots will be ever more used in disaster situations: “the impact of earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding […] is increasing, so the need for robots for all phases of a disaster, from prevention to response and recovery, will increase as well”.

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), can be used to detect and enter damaged buildings, assisting rescue robots and responders on the ground by speeding up the search for survivors through prioritizing which areas to search first.

Japan and the US lead the world in the development of rescue and disaster relief robots. Teams from both countries collaborated in recovery efforts after an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in March 2011, causing the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Given that 80% of the world’s population lives near water, maritime robotic vehicles can also play an important role in disaster relief by inspecting critical underwater infrastructure, mapping damage and identifying sources of pollution to harbours and fishing areas. Maritime robots helped to reopen ports and shipping channels in both Japan and Haiti after the major earthquakes of 2011 and 2010 respectively.

Several IEC TCs and SCs cooperate on the development of International Standards for the broad range of electrotechnical systems, equipment and applications used in rescue robots. In addition to IEC TC 47: Semiconductor devices, and IEC SC 47F: Microelectromechanical systems, mentioned above, other IEC TCs involved in standardization work for specific areas affecting rescue and disaster relief robots include IEC TC 44: Safety of machinery – Electrotechnical aspects; IEC TC 2: Rotating machinery; IEC TC 17: Switchgear and controlgear; and IEC TC 22: Power electronic systems and equipment.

Training rescuers and first responders efficiently

Training search and rescue (SAR) personnel for disaster situations they have never experienced is a time-consuming and complex task that can now call on new tools, such as virtual reality (VR).

State-of-the-art VR training programmes immerse users into a seemingly real disaster scenario. Background noise, visual and auditory cues create unique settings and incidents which require users to respond to the specific situation. This hands-on approach is far more effective than learning check lists for a number of possible disasters. The more familiar you are with a scenario, the more likely it is that you will be able to perform effectively.

There are many advantages to using VR training:

  • Safe – trainees can practise real-life skills in a safe environment
  • Efficient – individuals and large groups can train alone or together
  • Comprehensive – predesigned modules cover all types of situations
  • Cost effective – VR training doesn’t require special environments to be built or people to be transported, can be used multiple times and may be offered for free to emergency services
  • Tailored – response agencies will be able to tailor open source platforms to suit their requirements, infrastructure and available resources
  • Scalable – agencies can train alone or together for a coordinated response with other emergency services

VR can also be used to train staff in case of disease outbreaks. A charity working with the World Health Organization decided to use VR to update its training during the 2013 and 2016 Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa. The Ebola Training Project VR medical training simulation is a serious game based on a 3D model of the space and structures of an actual Ebola hospital. With the addition of sound effects and unique aspects of the working environment, users have the impression they are in a treatment unit in the field. They experience giving medical care to patients through fogged-over glasses – one of the real life effects of sweating in required full-body protective clothing. Trainees also wear this clothing to get a better understanding of the limitations on movement it provides.

VR is also used to train fire, rescue and emergency services personnel in many countries.

Behind the VR scenes, software drives components such as displays, sensors, images, maps and tracking technology, which link to the hardware (headsets or helmets). A number of IEC technical committees (TCs) and their subcommittees (SCs) produce International Standards and have testing systems which help ensure the reliability, safety, efficiency, interoperability and quality of the components within this technology.

ISO/IEC JTC 1, the Joint Technical Committee of IEC and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) covers standardization for information technology (IT). ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 24 works on interfaces for IT-based applications relating to computer graphics and virtual reality, image processing, environmental data representation, support for mixed and augmented reality, and interaction with, and visual presentation of, information.

Sensors and microelectromechanical systems are vital to VR technology. The work of IEC TC 47 and IEC SC 47F ensure they work reliably and efficiently. IEC TC 100 produces Standards which contribute to the quality and performance of audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment and their interoperability with other systems and equipment.

Helping with heavy lifting

An exoskeleton is a wearable mechanical outfit that is powered by a system of electric motors, pneumatics, levers, hydraulics, batteries or a number of technologies that allow limb movement with greater strength and endurance. It makes it possible for wearers to lift heavy loads without injuring themselves.

Following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami which led to the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, a Japanese R&D company for medical, rehabilitation and disaster rescue support, has developed a hybrid assistive limb (HAL) for disaster recovery, an exoskeleton suit, designed to aid users working under harsh conditions. This particular model claims to reduce radiation exposure by 50%, and includes a cooling system to prevent heatstroke. Equipped with sensors, it monitors heart rates and vital signs in real-time, while most of the suit’s weight is carried by the skeleton’s mechanical legs.

Disaster relief is often seen as concerning primarily rescuing and helping the people affected, and the restoration of essential services, such as power or water supplies. Actually a number of systems and services that rely on IEC Standards and Conformity Assessment Systems, and the introduction of systems aimed at ensuring decentralized energy generation and distribution could help prepare for the worst consequences of natural or man-made disasters and mitigate their impact on people and infrastructure.