One morning in May 1969, a technician dropped a liquid oxygen tank from a height of two inches. He picked it up and set it on a shelf. A test team later decided to empty the tank by heating it overnight. As they slept, the tank's temperature climbed over 1000 degrees, melting insulation and exposing a few inches of wire.
Less than a year after the mishap, Astronaut John Swigert flipped a switch to stir the tank, now installed on the spaceship carrying him to the Moon. A heart-stopping explosion rocked the vessel and two hundred thousand miles below, Apollo 13 Flight Director, Gene Kranz, heard "Houston, we have a problem."
The 200,000-mile response
Those words became a famous herald of disaster, but it was Kranz's, "Let's not make things worse by guessing," that started the historic rescue. They summarize his formula for modernized emergency response - integrated, accurate data.
Failure is Not an Option is Kranz's memoir of life among the pocket-protected "steely eyed-missile-men" of Mission Control. It recalls Apollo 13's shift from exploration to rescue. Everyone became laser-focused on life security, incident stabilization, and evacuation - core components familiar to every emergency manager.
It's tempting to attribute the ultimate success to the astronauts and scientists' steel nerves. NASA's Glynn Lunney spoke of their calm, "We don't sit around wringing our hands...we think about what we have to do to make it a success."
But stoicism under pressure is no substitute for accurate, complete data and information. Kranz insisted, "Let's get these men home; pay attention to your data."
The essence of disaster is chaos, the sudden fragmentation of order. It is often accompanied by the tragic loss of life, property, and community. Emergency responses are effective if they integrate information about the fluid situation into a complete picture of needs and remedies.
What do we have on the spaceship that's good?
Kranz helped design the layout of Mission Control with data integration in mind. The scientists and technology monitoring each system on the spacecraft were separated, but all data flowed to the flight commander's central platform for a total picture of the evolving crisis and response impacts.
Once disaster strikes, managers can use digital certifications for responder deployment, disaster site access management, and resource burn monitoring. They can generate response documentation so communities can get FEMA and other reimbursements.
Some were obsessed with Apollo 13's heat shield. Those monitoring life-support systems knew the CO2 would kill the crew long before re-entry. This ability to prioritize crisis components led to an extraordinary engineering accomplishment. Three near-frozen, hypoxic pilots built and fit a square filter into a round port. This would never have happened if data about the danger and which scientists could respond had been incomplete.
Unfortunately, many emergency services only have access to outdated, manual, or patchwork systems that capture partial data.
Digital solutions for our "constant state of crisis"
FEMA Director Rich Serino called our frequent disasters "a constant state of crisis." This highlights the need to invest in modern tools. Serino said, "We have lots of data, but what is really needed is information." He means managers need a complete picture through integrated data.
Gene Kranz said, "There is no such thing as good enough. You, your team, and your equipment must be the best. That is how you will win victories."
While Apollo 13's duct-taped CO2 filter made for great theater, using its digital equivalent to respond to emergencies does nothing to save lives. Systems that verify, store, and integrate data are "the best."
A modernized response
One example is the digital deployment at the tragic Surfside condominium collapse in Florida on June 24, 2021. Within hours of being called, Merit Emergency Services Solutions helped agencies issue digital, verified responder credentials, manage site access, and customize integrated-data dashboards. Emergency directors had a complete picture of the evolving crisis and remedies.
Even the best tools can't guarantee rescues as successful as Apollo 13's. They can, however, help emergency managers base decisions on what they know - instead of "making things worse by guessing."