Business in natural disasters

Company's products used in tornados, hurricanes other weather events

  • Tom Brown , director of business development for Smiths Detection, stands in one of the company's mobile emergency shelters.
Tom Brown , director of business development for Smiths Detection,… (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed…)
June 20, 2011|By Andrea K. Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Smiths Detection developed the portable emergency room to treat soldiers on the battlefield.

But the tornado that tore through Joplin, Mo., last month, executives at the Edgewood manufacturer say, showed another potential use.

The twister, one of the worst in U.S. history, destroyed the main hospital in the town of 49,000, leaving no sterile place in which doctors could provide care to disaster victims.

"We could have quickly deployed the system and helped people who had been hurt," said Tom Brown, the director of business development at Smiths.

In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Japan tsunami and other disasters, Smiths and other firms are looking at how their products and services — many developed for military use — might be used in emergency response.

While catastrophes such as the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the wildfires now ravaging the Southwest have riveted attention, weather researchers say disasters aren't necessarily on the rise.

The damage they have wrought, however, has increased — in part, because populations are living closer to the sea.

"There is some change in exposure," said Harold Brooks, a research meteorologist for the National Severe Storms Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Some of it is people have moved to the coast and businesses have moved to the coast," Brooks said. "That is added on to the fact that we have all accumulated more stuff."

Companies are responding. Communications firms are building portable satellite systems that can be used when traditional phone lines fail and helping to develop social networking strategies to alert people of looming storms. Manufacturers are repurposing laptops built to withstand the rigors of the front lines of war zones for roles in earthquake and hurricane zones.

Anaylsts say defense contractors in particular are looking at new uses for their products, particularly as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. Emergency response, they say, could provide new growth opporutnites for some.

"The things most needed in the aftermath of a natural disaster are the same things you need to operate in Afghanistan," said Loren Thompson, a Virginia-based military and defense analyst.

Smiths Detection is seeking government approval and federal funding to develop domestic uses for its medical shelter, which inflates into a tent to provide 400 square feet of hospital space.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has written a letter of support. The Army National Guard requested the funding last year. It is unclear when decisions would be made.

"There is a need we think we can fill," Brown said.

The core business of TeleCommunications Systems Inc. in Annapolis has been providing portable satellite communications systems for the federal government. But devices that started off as the communications lifeline for troops in Iraq now are used by aid workers in hurricanes and tsunamis.

The small satellite devices, which allow telephone, email and video communication, were used by rescie workers during Hurricane Katrina and floods in the Philippines and Malaysia. The company recently signed a contract for the devices to be used by the National Guard in hurricane-prone Florida.

"If you have a portable communication system … that worked well in war environments it should work well in a humanitarian effort," said Tim Lorello, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at TeleCommunication Systems. "It kind of happened naturally."

The company is working with the federal government to develop a system that would send text messages warning cell phone users of storms approaching their location, even when they are far from home.

Military contractor Northrop Grumman created its unmanned Global Hawk aircraft to spy on the enemy. But the drone also has been used to collect information on forest fires in Southern California and survey earthquake damage in Haiti and Japan.

Another of the company's devices was used to detect any earthquake damage underwater that might have prevented boats from approaching the Caribbean island during recovery efforts.

A spokeswoman for the California-based company, which has a large presence in Anne Arundel County, said Northrop Grumman doesn't necessarily see disaster response as a growth area, but its products have proved useful in such situations.

"The products we build for the military offer capabilities that can help," spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell-Jones said.

Florida-based General Dynamics Itronix, which has offices at Aberdeen Proving Ground, has built sturdy portable computers favored by police officers, soldiers and others not tethered to a desk. The laptops can withstand harsh weather, and may be dropped without getting damaged.

General Dynamics' clients use its its "rugged" computers widely in natural disasters.

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