Pittsburgh Models Air Quality Disasters to Inform EMS Response

air quality disasters
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As part of a resilience strategy, Pittsburgh is working with partners to use data modeling and response planning tools to prepare for air quality disasters.

The effects of an industrial legacy linger, and could contribute to future air quality disasters. Last year, the American Lung Association ranked Pittsburgh as one of the worst places in the country for air quality, the 14th worst in its assessment of more than 200 cities for daily pollution. Adding a heat wave to the historic poor air quality, such as the one that hit the Eastern U.S. in mid May, and the city’s vulnerable populations could be affected.

Pittsburgh has experienced deadly air quality disasters in the past. A smog event in nearby Donora in October 1948 left 20 people dead. The subsequent federal pubic health investigation that followed the event suggested the pollution was driven by the region’s unique weather factors.

Steel City’s general air quality may have improved since the height of the industrial age — the sky was said to go dark by noon, according to materials referenced by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development — but the effects of poor air quality remain a modern public health concern. The city is working with technology and academic partners as part of its resiliency efforts to explore how data modeling and predictive simulations can prepare the region for an air quality event on the magnitude of Donora.

Grant Ervin, chief resilience officer for city of Pittsburgh, said first responders are interested in how data can better prepare for air quality disasters.

In talking with emergency response professionals, some of their concerns center around the question of what happens when normal events occur simultaneously to create cascading effects that put strains on systems,” he said.

Modeling and simulations can inform public health policy, so first responders and resources are better deployed to address the most vulnerable populations in an air quality emergency.

Improving Breathing is a Key Goal

Air quality is an important focus of the city’s resilience strategy, ONEPGH, which was developed under a partnership with 100 Resilient Cities by The Rockefeller Foundation.

“Persistent socioeconomic inequities, coupled with a history of fragmented governance, planning and service delivery, continue to undercut resident quality of life and strain city resources,” notes the city’s resilience strategy, which was released in March.

The plan outlines numerous goals, such as a coordination goal to improve outdoor and indoor air quality. The Breathmobile is listed as one such sub-action. It’s a traveling laboratory that maps and monitors air quality throughout the region in order to increase public awareness of the harmful impacts of air pollution. An electronic display on the mobile lab broadcasts its information.

Two Models for Resilience Planning

The University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and Intermedix are working with city of Pittsburgh to provide the data modeling and predictive response planning tools as part of the 100RC partnership.

The university’s platform, FRED, models events like Donora within today’s elements. FRED was originally created to predict infectious disease epidemics and evaluate mitigating factors. It has evolved to include many other factors affecting health. The city is using FRED to estimate the clinical impact of heat and smog on different demographics within its population.

The platform can pinpoint critical conditions and the effect of potential interventions to better educate response efforts.

“For example, we can use the model to predict how many instances of acute respiratory disease warranting a 911 call would occur in the context of this environmental event,” said Dr. Mark Roberts, MD, MPP, director of the Public Health Dynamics Lab and chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, in a prepared statement.

Pittsburgh is using Intermedix Optima Predict, a predictive response planning and simulation tool, to determine resource allocation and deployments of emergency response personnel with the information provided by FRED. The city is also using Intermedix incident management technology WebEOC to highlight best practices for managing air quality disasters.

Recently the partners used the tools to simulate air quality disasters for EMS response, based on available resources and the community needs identified from the city’s observed data, and to discuss coordination among first responders, hospitals and utilities.

Evaluating Future Air Pollutant Factors 

While Steel City forges ahead to embrace technology opportunities like Uber’s self-driving cars and spearhead smart transit to improve traffic congestion, new industrial point sources are on the horizon.

Construction of an ethane cracker plant about 30 miles from the city is expected to begin this year, with more to come to the region in the future. These types of plants breakdown oil and gas into smaller molecules to create ethylene, which is used in plastics manufacturing. Ethylene is a volatile organic compounds that can contribute to ground level ozone. It is created with a cleaner burning technology called pyrolysis, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but atmospheric releases from plants are possible.

Ervin said the petrochemical plant would have an impact on the region’s emissions profile, but recent modeling for air quality disasters focused on a confluence of Pittsburgh’s current industrial, transportation, power production and other pollution sources.

FRED, however, will be there for Pittsburgh and her first responders as new air quality threats emerge.

“We are building platforms that we hope are useful to health policy makers across a wide range of health concerns.  We will continue to improve and expand the capabilities of FRED to model and represent multiple health risks and impacts. It is important to remember that FRED does not generate the pollution data itself – we use observed pollution data to estimate the effects of vulnerable populations. We will continue to make FRED available to Pittsburgh to investigate the impact of various health risks,” said Roberts.

About the author

Andrea Fox

Andrea Fox

Andrea Fox is Editor of EfficientGov.com and Senior Editor at Praetorian Digital. She is based in Massachusetts.