Large scale crisis and data exchange: the CAP protocol in L’Aquila earthquake

On April, 6th 2009 the Italian city of L’Aquila and the surrounding area have been striken by a 6,3 Mw earthquake, causing 309 victims, more than 1.600 injured and 10 billion euro of damages.

A door is one of the few remains of an old house in the historical center of Amatrice (Italy), destroyed by the earthquake of Aug. 24th, 2016. (Credits:






The Italian National Fire Corps responded swiftly, bringing in place some 1.000 professional rescuers within the first 24 hours, raised to more than 2.300 within the third day, together with some 1.100 vehicles and the needed resources and logistics. Of course the first and foremost target was to save lives, but soon after this task had been completed it was clear the urgency to deploy provisional measures for buildings to restore minimal safety conditions and avoid further damages.

L’Aquila was not a common town: besides the 73,000 civil buildings (half of which damaged), there were more than 600 registered monuments to save (172 of which damaged). More than 100 expert engineers of the Italian National Fire Corps have been working daily to assess civil buildings damages, but monuments required a more complex approach: firemen and their engineers had to work in team with cultural heritage experts provided by several Italian universities under the coordination of the Cultural Heritage Ministry. In fact, the design of provisional measures of each monument required several high-level expertises, as well as the practical approach of firemen, to adapt the design to an often compromised scenario. Such activity has been developed on a long term basis (it lasted more than an year). As a result, the involved professionals were periodically rotated: while firemen teams rotated with a week-long shift, the university teams could not always stay in place. A tool to work remotely was needed. Luckily, at that time the Italian National Fire Corps was testing the first release of the interoperability functionalities for the 100 provincial Control Centres.

CAP standard (from:

Even if does not exist a standard definition of DSS, it is commonly intended as a computer-based information system that supports business or organizational decision-making activities. When applied to daily or large scale emergencies, such definition implies the capacity of a DSS of analyzing and processing data generated or communicated by multiple sources. In more practical terms, a DSS developed to help a civil protection or a fire service Authority should be fed by data  and information provided not only by the citizens to emergency numbers, but also from any other organization involved in the rescue process as well as by available sensors networks, from simulation tools using such data and from the wealth of information provided by GIS data services. The available technologies are adequate enough for developers to deliver even complex systems, however such systems are still rarely adopted due to a main obstacle: the data which could be timely fed to such systems are insufficient in quantity and quality and most often not up-to-date, mostly for both political and technical reasons. Experiences gathered in the course of recent emergencies involving either large areas or very high numbers of people have shown that, even in recent years, the coordination of rescue activities rarely, if not never, was able to take advantage from ICT tools. The main obstacles to data exchange are political attitudes and lack of interoperability services. Most often they are cross-related: on one hand, the extreme care with which emergency data is rightly treated brings most emergency managers at avoiding any exchange of data (e.g., not trusting readily available services able to erase part of the information), on the other hand, due to such attitude there is a lack of properly designed and developed interoperability services aimed at exchanging emergency data. As a consequence, whenever an uncommon scenario demands such data exchange, the resulting political pressure brings to either exchange data anyway, through improper (and potentially risky) means, or to avoid such data exchange (and miss the related advantages). In most contexts, this issue can pose severe problems, since even if the political pressure is aimed at improving coordination through automatic data exchange, the existing systems cannot be updated in time in order to ensure such functionalities. The sole possibility to overcome such situation is to reach an agreement between the different authorities, aimed at converting and exchanging data in a common protocol, which can be read by non homogeneous systems. Such solution has been tested in Italy in L’Aquila earthquake (2009), when many common cultural heritage buildings have been damaged. The need of coordinating in different teams of Italian firefighters working on the buildings a large territorial area of under the direction of the Cultural Heritage Administration has been solved using a system of data exchange based on  the international standard CAP (common alerting protocol). The web-based system has allowed to speed up a process that needed several approval steps that would have implied continuous meetings.

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