Environmental Factor – September 2022: Disaster research response front and center at Seattle workshop

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The University of Washington (UW) hosted the 2022 Disaster Research Response Workshop (DR2) in Seattle, August 9-11, sponsored in part by the NIEHS. Representatives from academia, the private sector, Pacific Northwest tribes, and community groups—as well as government personnel at the local, state, and federal levels—convened at UW to examine regional capacity to inform and conduct disaster research.

Washington is increasingly experiencing the impacts of climate change, such as growing threats from wildfires and extreme heat waves. Located along the Cascadia Subduction Zonethe state has also significant earthquake and tsunami risks, giving participants much to discuss and learn during the three-day workshop.

Building partnerships, developing priorities

The DR2 planning committee team, led by Nicole Errett, Ph.D., from the UW Department of Environmental Sciences and Occupational Health, has worked throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to bring together representatives from across the state and around the world. Through these efforts, they have shared related research and found opportunities for future collaboration, including building partnerships and co-developing research priorities in affected communities.

Errett welcomes participants to the workshop. (Photo courtesy of Dylan Williams)

Nearly 100 experts gathered at the workshop to hear presentations on Institutional Review Board (IRB) disaster preparedness and lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic (IRBs ensure that research involving participants protects human rights and well-being and upholds high ethical standards); using implementation science to improve the adoption of evidence-based approaches in public health emergency preparedness and response practices; and the need for a coordinated and collaborative research response to public health disasters.

Aubrey Miller, MD, NIEHS DR2 Program Manager and Deputy Director of the Office of Science, Coordination, Planning and Evaluation (SCOPE), opened the workshop. “The research discussed here is done in part with funding from our federal family, but we need to improve our ability to leverage those resources and expertise in times of crisis, because once something happens, it’s already too late,” he said.

Elizabeth Maly, Ph.D.from the International Research Institute for Disaster Risk Science at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, reiterated this sentiment.

“Productive collaborations are nothing without trust, and that trust must be built organically and through partnerships established at workshops like these,” she said.

FAST Technology

Collecting perishable data following disasters poses unique challenges. Planners should consider costs and access to data collection equipment, the need for post-disaster research coordination, and ethical considerations surrounding reconnaissance research. Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Recognition of natural hazards and disasters (RAPID) The UW facility aims to help researchers meet such challenges.

Richard Kwok, Ph.D., models the Street View camera and backpack mount for the RAPID installation Richard Kwok, Ph.D., SCOPE program director and co-lead of the NIEHS DR2 program, modeled the Street View camera and backpack mount for the RAPID installation. (Photo courtesy of Dylan Williams)

The workshop included an overview of the RAPID facility, led by Facility Director Joseph Wartman, Ph.D., and Facility Operations Specialist Jaqueline Zdebski, as well as a demonstration of the RApp mobile application, Street View-type mobile imaging systems, unmanned antenna (drones) and easy-to-use terrestrial lidar systems.

RApp, a tablet and mobile (soon to be compatible with iPhone) reconnaissance resource provided by the RAPID facility, integrates research planning and coordination, data collection and data management into a single package with a customizable interface. RApp allows users to collect data through questionnaires, photos, videos, checklists, scans, etc., which are then automatically synced to NSF. DesignSafe cyberinfrastructure data repository.

The RAPID Facility repository also includes Street View camera systems with car and backpack mounts that can capture and collect 360 degree imagery data which is then processed internally at the facility. The data is then archived on DesignSafe and made accessible to the wider research community after taking steps to protect privacy (such as face and license plate blurring).

“We designed our tools with users in mind, which means you won’t need an engineer on your team to control these devices,” said Jeffrey Berman, Ph.D., director of field operations at the RAPID installation.

Lessons from Tribal Partners

Workshop participants were invited to visit the Duwamish Tribe Museum Longhouse and cultural center. The tribe, originally from the Duwamish River Valley, has been active in the ecological restoration of the Duwamish River, a Federal Superfund site, and has collaborated on local environmental health research.

Welcome sign for the Duwamish Tribe Longhouse and Cultural Center Welcome sign for the Duwamish Tribe Longhouse and Cultural Center along the banks of the Duwamish River in South Seattle. (Photo courtesy of Betsy Galluzzo)

Cynthia Updegravemember of the Native American Studies department at UW, led the group through həʔapus village park (pronounced “ha-ah-poos”) while discussing the Duwamish River Community Coalition (RDCC) partnership with the UW EDGE Center to inform COVID-19 response efforts.

“During the [COVID-19] pandemic, DRCC had young people in the community asking people what they needed and what they had, and we reached a lot of people,” she said. “The teenagers we worked with were able to be hands-on, front-line support during the response to this disaster.”

Building Community Resilience

Planning for the workshop also sparked several collaborative research projects, including one focused on Seattle’s Duwamish Valley aimed at building resilience through locally adapted strategies. This project, the Seattle Assessment of Public Health Emergency Response (SASPER), is a collaboration between UW, DRCC, Duwamish Valley Youth Corps, City of Seattle Office of Sustainability and Environment, Public Health – Seattle and King County and Department of Health from Washington. Valley residents have been asking for help for decades to address the environmental justice issues that persist in the area.

Workshop participants walk through həʔapus village park Workshop participants walk through həʔapus village park, an archaeological and cultural site where a Duwamish tribal village once stood. (Photo courtesy of Dylan Williams)

build on a similar approach by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, SASPER will collect household-level information to inform future climate change and disaster preparedness efforts, among other public health initiatives.

Alberto Rodríguez from the Seattle Office of Sustainability and Environment highlighted the community engagement that catalyzed the SASPER process and shifted the discussion to considering the impact of climate change as a social determinant of health. He said community voices have been critical in determining the types of issues to include in the assessment, what critical resources are lacking, and where financial support will be most beneficial.

Session panelists agreed that the shared respect and understanding between academia, government and the community made the SASPER initiative productive – highlighting the importance of collaborative science that also serves communities at the heart of research. Jamie Vickery, Ph.D.a UW research scientist, leader of the workshop planning committee and member of the SASPER team, said, “The planning process sparked important discussions about how we as researchers can work effectively and intentionally with communities and key partners and learn from communities and key partners to advance actionable disaster research.

(Dylan Williams is a research analyst for MDB Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS DR2 program.)


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