updated 3/8/2011 11:18:26 AM ET 2011-03-08T16:18:26

Counting the number of deaths and injuries after natural or manmade catastrophes can be a daunting task. Predicting them is even more difficult. But an updated computer system called Electronic Mass Casualty Assessment and Planning Scenarios to be released later this year could help emergency responders estimate the numbers before disaster strikes, giving them ample time to prepare.

“This tool allows local emergency planners, hospitals and urgent care facilities to understand the potential impacts for a variety of terrorist events and natural hazards based on variables in their immediate area,” said Matthew Clark, director of university programs at the Department of Homeland Security. The department teamed up with researchers from John Hopkins University to develop the program.

The first version was released in 2005 and focused primarily on terrorist threats. But the most recent version has been expanded to include 15 different scenarios that correspond with Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, priorities, such as threats from hurricanes and anthrax, among others.

Anyone can download the system free online from the website. Various organizations from large community hospitals to universities around the world have already done so. Medical personnel or emergency planners who download the system can plug in information specific to their region and, after running a scenario, will receive estimates of fatalities and injuries as well as the estimated size of the impact zone.

The program could help coastal cities prepare for storms like Hurricane Katrina by estimating how many people a hurricane could become injured or killed. Regional hospitals could take these estimates and equip their staffs to handle a large influx of patients months or years before a major hurricane hit. The system could also help city officials understand how far inland a storm would reach, so they could create an evacuation plan for large numbers of residents.

While EMCAPS provides a wide range of information, it does not fulfill all emergency planners’ needs.

“We use the tools we have, but we don’t have one tool that does everything,” said Karl Rehn, training manager for the Texas Engineering Extension Service, a Homeland Security funded program that teaches police officers, fire department officials and other emergency planners around the country how to respond to use EMCAPS.

Rhen said he uses several computer programs along side EMCAPS to provide the most comprehensive view of an emergency situation. He uses EMCAPS, for example, to determine probable fatalities, and Signature Scene, a mapping system, to determine the possible impact zone.

But software developers at John Hopkins are trying to incorporate more features that would push EMCAPS toward becoming an all-in-one program.

Jim Scheulen, chief administrative officer for the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine's Department of Emergency Medicine, said one of those features includes a map that would overlay the impacted area on a city map.

“This could demonstrate where people might be, what radius would be affected by an explosion for example,” he said.

Scheulen said other emergency computer programs are still necessary like those that tell hospital personnel what supplies are needed. He said if these systems are put together with EMCAPS, their combined potential could save many lives.

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