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Jim Smalley
Spatial Intelligence: GIS

by Jim Smalley: Trends in mapping for emergency managers

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January 30, 2011

The NAPSG Foundation recently announced the availability of its Standard Operating Guidance for Public Safety GIS, developed by a team of GIS specialists and professionals. The document is provided as a basic template to support national GIS standards development for emergency response in Multi-Agency Coordination Centers.  The initial version of this document is a dynamic publication (updated as more usage feedback is gathered).

If you're an agency GIS leader looking for a basis on which to form and manage a local public safety GIS regardless of the founding organization (fire, police, etc.), download a copy for review and possible adoption or adaptation and provide NAPSG Foundation feed back and suggestions for the next version. 

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January 14, 2011

Recently, the long awaited announcement came with great pomp and circumstance - the coveted Apple iPhone will soon be available from Verizon. If you are already an iPhone owner or among the 93 million Verizon users who will switch over to the iPhone in the coming months, you can find several apps that can aid in your GIS projects, provide information to supplement your map data, or just be fun to have. Not all can be covered in this blog, but here are a few of my favorites that might pique your interest.   

“MapQuest 4 Mobile” is a free app that could serve as GPS unit, including voiced turn-by-turn directions. MotionX GPS, TomTom, and others offer similar apps. A new app called “Montgomery County (Pennsylvania) Incidents” provides the public with the latest information regarding emergency incidents (traffic, fire, EMS) throughout the county, helping citizens avoid emergency areas and find a clear route to work or errands (and reduce hazardous exposure to responding personnel operating at the scene. The “Topo Maps” app will let you assemble continuous USGS topo maps for your area with several choices geographic reference systems, including US National Grid. The simplest app for the USNG and a few others is “GPS2OS.”

Of course, apps from ESRI (“Business Analyst Online”, “My Place History”, and “ArcGIS”) can provide demographic data, assemble hazardous exposure info for places you have lived, and provide base maps, current event maps and an outlet for you to post your own maps. With a special iPhone case from Magellan, your iPhone can gather accurate geo-data that can be added directly to your maps.

Download the latest version of Apple’s iTunes and put that iPhone to work to help your public safety mapping efforts.   

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January 07, 2011

As a continuation of my last blog, I would like to offer a brief thought about the two other major elements for a sustainable GIS for public safety.  GIS Of all the discussion in this year’s NAPSG Foundation’s Public Service and Fire Service GIS User Group meetings and workshops, a common theme was people - those who serve as GIS specialists, analysts, and managers and the need for training and standard performance criteria. Included in many of these discussions was the fact that, as much revered and valued GIS in fire departments, there was only one or two key people officially assigned to GIS, regardless of the size of the department. Although a foundational element, it is generally weaker in many locales than the other elements of software, hardware, and data. 

Another foundational block is often the least considered by local and regional public safety agencies. Policy, like people, data, software,and hardware, should support the acquisition and use of data among all public safety organizations, Yet, too often policies actually limit the coordination of emergency efforts through overly secure measures to protect what? an agency’s perceived importance in a community? Furthering public policies that prohibit/restrict sharing data is dangerous and irresponsible, serving no one, especially the responders needing critical information in times of emergencies.  

GIS not all about systems and certainly not about organizational ego. It’s about people and building a reliable decision making tool for protecting public safety professionals and those they serve.

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January 01, 2011

Whether you’re getting started with GIS or managing a mature GIS team, there seems to be a focus only on the awesome power and capability of GIS and forget some very basic foundational elements of a sustainable public safety GIS, especially when planning for the future.

Geographic and data management software are a cornerstone of the foundation for GIS.  Admittedly, current software and program capabilities are simply inspiring. Each version of major GIS software packages and the soon-to-follow third party applications improves the user interface and analysis capabilities, but software is only one of the foundational blocks. 

Computer hardware, another basic element, becomes more sophisticated to meet the possibilities offered by the software. The proliferation of hardware drives a lot of people nuts, (pondering when, what, how many, and how much and focusing on cost instead of  the value that GIS brings to emergency service delivery).

Spatial and non-spatial data drives all GIS-based decisions, whether on the emergency scene or in the conference room, and is the third foundational block. 

The last two foundational elements are people and policies. Look for an upcoming blog on recent revelations from a series of national public safety meetings in 2010. 

Finally, I send my sincere thanks to all who have supported my blogs, writings, and teaching GIS to public safety groups and individuals in 2010. Happy New Year wishes to all my fire, law enforcement and emergency management colleagues. 

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December 29, 2010

We have wifi, secure servers, the Internet, right? I have had numerous conversations with fire officers about several “what if” scenarios involving the loss of electrical power, phone communications, internet, and similar elements of public safety delivery. 

In during the recent snow storm in the northeast, one of the country's largest communications firms lost power in a regional distribution hub. In order to prevent a "melt-down" (as explained by a company representative), they shut down their servers, and 91% of the regional customers were with out tv, Internet, and phone services.  During this major emergency, which evacuations were occurring, local emergency services were stretched, and two homes in a flooded area burned, as fire fighters rescued people by boat.  The implications of these events demand our consideration.

The message is not blame or customer service, but a concern about how reliant we are becoming on the communications infrastructure that allows us to use all the GIS data, maps, and non-spatial information that we've been developing. Map books may not be the (only) answer to infrastructure failures, but we need to develop contingencies for the access and use of GIS data with the same attention we do for securing the data itself. 

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December 10, 2010


With all the talk of common operating pictures (COPs), the public safety community is working hard to get lined up, sharing agreements established, standards implemented, and personnel trained. In at time that many feel that instant gratification takes too long, the goal of the COP is a  a widely recognized prize for all that effort (and countless PowerPoint presentations as to how to get there and why). But the elements of a Picture should be up to the user. Police, fire, emergency management, public health all have different needs for maps and the incident management “pictures” each group uses should be designed for the use. It seems that something else forms the basis of a COP other than our desire to have one.

Thank goodness that many people involved in public safety GIS are mindful that the basic requirement of a COP is operable data. So why isn't there more discussion regarding COD (common operating data) along with the COP? At this time, the NFPA Technical Committee on Data Exchange is quietly continuing its work on developing a minimal standard to establish the COD for fire departments. Since the committee’s draft document is in process, there is no information publicly available at this time. The Committee will meet again in early 2011 and is expected shortly after to submit a draft the NFPA Standards Council for approval. After approval the document will be available for public comment. What all this means is  that there’s still time for the COD discussion to surface among all public safety organizations, so when the document becomes available for public comment, you’ll be prepared to help the Committee finalize a list of data for the COD that we can use to create a COP that is real, useable, and truly common to incident management.



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December 01, 2010

In the next few days look for an updated “ArcGIS” app for Apple’s iPhone 4. If you don’t have it on your iPhone yet, go get it. It’s a portable window into the online esri service to share maps across multiple platforms. 


Among the current features are finding maps of national and international interest and currency. For example, you can view maps of “Active Wildfires in the USA” or “Gulf Oil Spill Impact” or even check out the current duck migration in South Dakota (“SD GFP Duck Migration”).  The built-in tools in the app include identifying locations and features in a map, measuring distances between points and areas of polygons.  


With the update which is expected to appear soon, a new tool will appear and your iPhone becomes a GPS data collection instrument. You’ll be able to enter waypoints and export those to GIS maps. Potential uses include being able to plot perimeters of wildfires, tracking hiking trails, and so on. And, of course, being able to upload that data and share that information with others. If used to its full potential in public safety, the app can save lives and property in incidents of everyday emergencies and large scale, less frequent disasters.

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August 22, 2010

The National Alliance for Public Safety GIS (NAPSG) Foundation has announced the 2010 series of Fire Service GIS User Group Meetings - free of charge! The locations this fall include Seattle WA, San Diego CA, Parker CO, Orlando FL, Greensboro NC, and Mahwah NJ. For dates and registration, visit the NAPSG Foundation's new website and look for the Events section and map.

Following the successful Fire Service User Group meetings in 2009, the NAPSG Foundation has expanded the user group meetings to include a one-day basic GIS training session for situational awareness and fire fighter safety. The training objective is not to teach technical skills but to train fire service personnel how to operationalize GIS. The training session (provided by funding through DHS/FEMA's Grant Program Directorate for Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program) includes a basic overview of fire service GIS and intermediate skills in GIS risk assessment, using regional scenarios and a hands-on search & rescue exercise.

In addition to training, participants will have the "greet and share" opportunities among fire service GIS practitioners on the second day under the guidance of a regional Leadership Team in each geographic area.

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July 31, 2010

For years, I had heard in very general ways about John Snow's contributions to what we know today as GIS analysis and epidemiology, but only recently have I gotten the whole story and more. The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, is an historical account of the mid-19th century outbreak of cholera in Victorian London. It reads like a mystery novel with historical insights along the way, complete with a description of the V. Cholera bacterium strain, the impact of sanitary conditions, and an interesting (but disgusting) list of workers and their milieu. 
From the death of a small child, the narrative follows the social-political events and conditions that exacerbated the spread of the disease and resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. But more importantly, the story is really about the unlikely pairing of John Snow (a doctor) and Reverend Henry Whitehead in pursuit of the origin and eventual containment of the disease through (not a surprise here) mapping the outbreak. The two, who began in opposition in beliefs of how cholera spreadin the beginning, tracked not only the cases (fatal and non-fatal) but also the social interaction of the people in the Soho district in the 1850s - where they traveled to get potable water, why some survived in the midst of the outbreak, who delivered water to whom, and why some fatalities occurred outside Soho. What might receive a short paragraph or less in a history book is fully played out with drama and passion for public health. 
We should remind ourselves that public safety is not just the immediate need for emergency response that is measured by minutes and seconds. Knowledge of the event (cause, threat, damage, progression) determines the response.  Our view of a multi-disciplined public safety and homeland security strategy should include LOCAL public health organizations along with local fire, police, and emergency management agencies. 
It was only the street level knowledge of John Snow and Whitehead and the resulting mapping of the social interactions of neighbors amidst the terrifying outbreak in a congested area that convinced others about the nature of the disease and its solution. With the today's public agencies using GIS and exploring crowd sourcing for local data, this story resonates about the inclusive nature of the meaning of public safety (and those who provide for the common good) and the importance of objective analysis of both spatial and non-spatial data for sound decision making. 
One final note: If you do get a copy of The Ghost Map, keep a glass of fresh water next to you if only for a reminder of how fragile public health can be.

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July 25, 2010

Most public safety response agencies normally record training activities to use for reviews of training evolutions. Law enforcement agencies often, if not always, routine record traffic stops for safety reasons. In previous blogs, I've discussed the benefits of public safety agencies monitoring and using social media-fed information to assist responders with incident intelligence in advance of arrival. All pretty good stuff that can be geo-linked with map points for analysis.

However, there are other considerations, especially for public safety personnel who may be wearing digital cameras or recording events. For a start, the basic questions include ownership, storage, and maintenance of the recorded information. If a public safety official (for example, fire fighter or police officer) is wearing a camera at an event (emergency incident or training evolution), is the recording public record? Who owns the recording - the department, the individual, the jurisdiction, the identifiable citizen in the recording?

How is the recorded information stored and in what format? In the case of existing recording tape or film, there are certain environmental conditions that must be maintained. Likewise, for digital media, similar cautions should be observed (temperature, humidity, magnetic sources). Also, consider the formats - not for the present but for the future. Did we really think that VHS tape would ever be eclipsed by a digital card? Or that the WordPerfect file format would be the BFF (best format forever)? Have you tried opening a copy of an 25-year old document created and saved on a now "ancient" (and long ago discarded) Radio Shack or Osborne computer?

And finally (at least in this list) is security. Where should these files be stored, referenced, and retrieved? Because of the manner and ease in which digital files can modified and re-saved, which version is the correct one? How should access be made available?

In addition to what we consider "recorded" media are maps and data. Can you (without the help of your GIS guru) make the required conversions to open a 12-year old ArcView 3.x map file in ArcGIS 10? Just a few things to think about.

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