When one of the Southern California firestorms broke out in Ontario the night of Sunday, Oct. 21, the city’s emergency response team turned to Jay Lickfett, lead software engineer at UCI’s Calit2 RESCUE Project, for help. Lickfett had developed a disaster Web portal for Ontario that allowed emergency responders to provide the public with real-time information in a crisis, and now his system faced its first real test.

“When the fire started, we knew we had to get our portal working,” says Ontario Emergency Manager Jacob Green ’05. Fortunately Green, who got a degree in social sciences from UCI, had connections.

“I called Jay at his home in Irvine and he was in our emergency operations center in 45 minutes. He got there around 10 p.m. and he didn’t leave until 10 a.m. He helped our public information officers and command staff get information out to the community. He was phenomenal.”

Ontario’s residents used the portal’s interactive maps to check on the fire’s progress, find out which streets were closed, monitor mandatory evacuations and locate evacuation centers.

“The system performed perfectly. And Jay made sure everything was up and running,” Green says. “The year and a half that he spent working on the project paid off exponentially.”

During the Ontario fire, which was contained by Tuesday, Oct. 23, the disaster portal logged 5,000 unique visitors and 50,000 hits.

“They were definitely getting use out of it,” Lickfett says.

He developed the portal through the National Science Foundation-supported RESCUE Project, which develops technology to assist first responders in an emergency. Spearheaded by UCI and directed by Sharad Mehrotra, computer science professor, the project brings together researchers at five other universities: UC San Diego, University of Colorado at Boulder, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Maryland and Brigham Young University. Project leaders also work with local businesses and authorities, such as fire and police departments, interested in using the new technology.

“There are lots of different research projects in RESCUE; we wanted one that has impact in the real world,” Lickfett says. “The disaster portal allowed me to work on the research side of the project, then see how it’s used in a real situation. Those two things don’t always go together.”

The portal includes a Family Reunification Search that helps users track down missing family members, and a donations tab where users can post their needs and respond to calls for help.

“We’ve now created a software package we can distribute to other cities,” Lickfett says. “After Ontario, we think the system is stable and useful.” And it can save lives.