When a natural crisis like a flood or wildfire strikes, quick decisions, clear communication and appropriate responses are critical components to lead large numbers of people to safety.
Mary Lupa, a travel forecaster with WSP USA, believes the changing environmental landscape is creating a need for government agencies to re-evaluate their emergency response plans. She is ready to help.
“Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of wildfires and floods,” Lupa said. “Thus, agencies are looking to update their emergency response plans. A key first step is to understand the decision-making process in the event of a disaster.”
Lupa was recently selected as a WSP Research & Innovation Fellow for her proposal, Community Planning: Emergency Evacuation Process and Protocol. The annual fellowship program is designed to foster and accelerate the development and application of innovation by providing seed funding and mentoring.
“I am humbled and honored to receive this fellowship,” she said. “This is an important project that could have a significant impact on people’s lives, and I am grateful that the fellowship will give me an opportunity to pursue this initiative.”
The Fellowship research team includes (from left to right) Yosef Yip, Don Hubbard, Mary Lupa and Annika Ragsdale.
Lupa is leading the fellowship team that will develop an emergency evacuation household survey for use in developing a crisis communications management plan. Much of the work is focused on wildfire preparation.
“The wildfire evacuation survey is a new product that aims to add to the existing disaster recovery knowledge base and serve emerging client emergency evacuation needs,” Lupa said. “The information will be made available to offices of emergency management at the municipal and county levels and other disaster recovery personnel.”
She specifically recruited team members from California to join the effort, including Don Hubbard, senior planning manager in Sacramento; Yosef Yip, communications planner in San Francisco; Annika Ragsdale, an analyst in Sacramento; and Angela Starr, senior communications manager in Los Angeles.
“They all live near impacted wildfire areas, know the local players, and some of them work in the firm’s communications and public involvement practice,” she said. “This work is much more than just a research project. It is a human-centered effort to prepare people for disaster and save lives.”
The success of this plan will depend upon making sure agencies are getting the most out of their use of social media as an immediate communication tool.
“Agencies are faced with an increasing need to use social media efficiently, which presents challenges in public outreach and coordination,” Lupa said. “We want to help them meet those challenges and create effective communications in their communities.”
The Thomas Fire was one of several wildfires that hit Southern California in late 2017, and the largest recorded in California history. Fires like this are prompting emergency response changes that Mary Lupa and WSP are currently studying.
Always a Thrill
Prior to joining WSP, Lupa worked with the City of Colorado Springs, both before and after the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire. Together with planning partners, including the director of the office of emergency management for Colorado Springs, she put together a traffic plan to assist in household evacuation in case of a wildfire.
“This plan successfully estimated the time to evacuate and has been instrumental in the city’s playbook for evacuation since then,” Lupa said. “It has also been published and presented at the National Academy of Sciences Transportation Research Board.”
Lupa’s emergency communication research for the fellowship is just one of the projects on her plate this year. Her role with WSP typically involves the development and application of travel forecasting models, and she is currently working on a travel demand assessment for the I-294 tollway in DuPage County, Illinois, and a travel model update for Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“In travel demand modelling, we bring a skills toolbox to each project,” she said. “We identify the best tools for each project although we usually end up crafting a new tool along the way. Problem solving is always a thrill.”
One of the things that makes her work at WSP successful and rewarding is the collaborative nature of her colleagues.
“My WSP colleagues around the globe are always willing to provide advice and expertise to my clients,” Lupa said. “A key phrase of mine is, ‘I am not an expert in that area, but let me connect you with someone who is.’ The depth and breadth of knowledge across the firm is remarkable.”
As a self-proclaimed “Air Force brat,” Lupa grew up in several places but calls San Antonio, Texas her “favorite hometown.” She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Texas-Austin and her master’s degree in urban planning and policy from the University of Illinois-Chicago.
“My mentor, Dr. David Boyce, brought me to the University of Illinois-Chicago Urban Transportation Center as a grad student, which gave me a jump start on understanding the transportation industry,” she said.
In 1995, Lupa earned her certification from the American Institute of Certified Planners, and for six years she served on the Transportation Research Board’s urban transportation data and information systems committee. She is also a member of the Institute of Transportation Engineers.
Outside the office, she is an active member of the Friends of the Chicago River, periodically volunteering for Chicago area river clean-ups. “In my view, protecting our environment is an important mission in maintaining a civil society,” she said.