CHDS alum leads wildfire damage assessment partnership between CalOES, Google

California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services Assistant Director’s Elijah “Eli” Owen, a Center for Homeland Defense and Security alum, and Grady Joseph are leading the charge on an innovative partnership with Silicon Valley icon Google aimed at more efficiently assessing state wildfire damage costs in an effort to speed up recovery efforts.

Wildfires have caused billions of dollars of damage in California over the past several years.

Owen (Fusion Center Leaders Program 1503, Executive Leaders Program 2001) is working with fellow Cal OES assistant director Grady Joseph on a pilot project with Google Cloud Public Sector using its Street View technology to streamline the wildfire damage cost assessment process.

The pilot, which began in March and went operational in June as the state’s traditional wildfire season started, covered three major wildfires and a few minor ones. The goal of the pilot project is to evaluate how to create algorithms using Google’s artificial intelligence and technology that reflect the results compiled by the current painstaking system of wildfire damage assessments done on the ground, manually, by CalOES teams, which are completed by staff with cell phone cameras and clipboards going door-to-door to assess damage to everything from private property to public infrastructure in communities affected by the disasters.

Owen and Joseph said the wildfire damage assessment process could be trimmed from up to several weeks depending on the intensity of the disaster to about 24 hours using the Silicon Valley high tech partners like Google Street View, Google maps and unmanned aerial vehicle platforms to develop the assessments and deliver to Cal OES staff for the ultimate decision-making work, leading to potentially much quicker federal emergency declarations and the unlocking of crucial federal funding, as well as insurance claims, as part of the recovery process.

In addition, Cal OES will have a digital record of the damage assessments, skipping the time-consuming paper-based assessment method.

A Folsom Lake volunteer crew battles the Lava Fire.

“This will drastically improve the wildfire damage assessment process, including the administrative complexities,” Owen said. “We’ll be able to look at the damage assessments once rather than multiple times.”

Owen said the goal is to get the go-ahead from Cal OES executive leadership this winter and implement the program in time for next year’s wildfire season. Eventually, he said, the same technology could be used for other disaster damage assessments, including for floods and earthquakes.

And, Owen added that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has already expressed some interest in the proposal and it could end up expanding to other states across the nation.

Owen said he and Joseph “pride themselves on addressing intractable problems by using technology,” and the former CIA intelligence officer credited his experience with CHDS’s Fusion Center Leaders and Executive Leaders programs with further sparking his propensity for “nerding out over technology” and developing the capacity to think through developing solutions using technological means.

According to Owen, the proposal was Joseph’s “brainchild,” and Joseph said it was Google that reached out to Cal OES about a year and a half ago regarding the innovative proposal. While Covid-19 pandemic slowed things down a bit, the pilot was developed over the next year or so in time for implementation this year.

Joseph said Google is covering the cost of the pilot program, and the eventual longer-term contract would be open for bid and wouldn’t be expected to be any more expensive than current wildfire damage assessment efforts.

A lone firefighter stands in front of the raging Antelope Fire.

Owen currently serves as Assistant Director of Recovery Operations and was previously the Commander of the CalOES California State Threat Assessment Center and a top advisor to the Cal OES director, who also serves as the Governor’s Homeland Security advisor.

Before joining CalOES, Owen served for nearly a decade in the CIA where he worked in counterterrorism and cybersecurity issues, and was recognized with several awards from the U.S. intelligence community for his leadership and professional achievements in the U.S. and abroad.

Joseph, a graduate of UCLA who began his career with Silicon Valley’s Apple, serves as Cal OES’ Assistant Director of Logistics Management and previously worked for FEMA’s Recovery Operations Division.

INQUIRIES: Heather Hollingsworth Issvoran, Communications and Recruitment | hissvora@nps.edu, 831-402-4672 (PST)

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