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Jim Smalley
Spatial Intelligence: GIS

by Jim Smalley: Trends in mapping for emergency managers

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January 2010 Archives
January 04, 2010

Maps have something about them that confounds, inspires, intrigues, and humbles us. I've spoken to many people about maps, why the attraction, avoidance, or confusion exists. Many answers from the simple to the complex were given, but the fascination remained. Those who can't read maps admire those who can. Those who can read maps seem always to be in search of the ultimate map. Maybe it's in our DNA. Maybe it's in the minds of the imaginative person who longs to travel to other places, always knowing where home is. Perhaps the fascination begins by chance in youth and lays hold our wonderment for a lifetime.

Young children carefully push crayons around a piece of paper to map the universe of their neighborhood. In my youth, we found abundant treasures in our backyards. Some of these treasures we had previously discovered, some we buried or even re-buried. Our maps consisted well known landmarks, such as "my house", "Larry's house", the "sewer drain", the "alley", and the "third telephone pole from the street."

From these clues, we would begin our search with specific directions. The "buried treasure" (a box of toy soldiers, a discarded household item, or other object of fascination) could be found by counting off an exact number of steps in certain direction provided by a toy compass from a landmark that was found by a solving clue. The steps were always measured by the mapmaker's strides or a heel-to-toe count. Pretty accurate, too, as long as we had the same size shoe or didn't exaggerate our strides.

As we grew older, our maps encompassed larger areas. From our neighborhood, we wanted to place our world in larger and larger universes like our towns, our counties, and states. I remember my father showing me how he used the well-known Sanborn Maps in fire inspections. Here was another level that I have come to appreciate - a detailed map of a city block with multiple levels of information about each building and elements of infrastructure encoded by color, texture or lines.

When I joined the fire department as a live-in college student, I was aware that drivers were studying streets and maps and hydrant locations for the entire city. Not my problem. I had to pass trig and physics while trying to comprehend the progress of western civilization. But, of all the subjects in college, I most remember a short course in map reading in the ROTC curriculum. My fascination with maps found new energy, and I got a much better compass!


Then I became an apparatus driver on the fire department and realized what a monumental task map memorization was. It was just about all I could do to remember the sequence of steps to get the pump engaged and how to determine the needed water pressure at the end of the hose. But, of course, all these skills became second nature over time.

When I moved to Washington DC to work at the US Fire Administration/FEMA, I discovered a real treasure only a few blocks from the office - a retreat from work - a map store! I browsed through maps of the ancient world, modern world, the fictional world of middle earth, even the moon! And only a few blocks away from that - the mecca of the National Geographic Society! As the manager of the fire protection master planning program, I used real maps for assessment of fire departments and created fictional ones for training. Maps! I had been addicted all along!

"Spatial recognition" may not have been a term in common usage then, but that's what I found that I had. As fire chief, I found management issues that required my map skills and imagination to solve. For the last three decades, I've taught college level courses in fire protection master planning, beginning with paper maps and acetate overlays to introduce fire fighters and officers to the value of maps and the particularly the importance of analyzing the data beneath their surface.

Through this series of blogs, I hope to share with you ideas for discussion, current activities in mapping, and much more. But above all, I hope that together we can help expand an appreciation and understanding in others of why maps in our world are so important for emergency management right now and in our future.


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January 11, 2010

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a training session on emergency procedures for a nearby nuclear power plant. The session was conducted by the state emergency management agency for a group of volunteers who would be staffing a host facility for evacuees, in "the unlikely event" the facility should be required to be staffed.  Many of the attendees had fire and emergency backgrounds, most did not.

Emergency evacuation was the most intently listened to topic and there were many questions and concerns. When, how, how many, where, and so on - the typical questions expected.  An interesting question arose, however, raised a point that was a little out of the ordinary. "How much information will the estimated 96,000 people in the area receive as the 'unlikely event' develops or escalates?"  The instructor (who was doing a great job, by the way, in case he reads this blog) adeptly sidestepped this issue with a reference to information that would come from the news media, emergency alert systems, and emergency organizations in charge.  

The core issues (as I see them) are the differences between no information and some information and between accurate information and precise information. 

Recent studies of human behavior in emergencies indicate that people will react appropriately to a situation if they have real information as to the nature of the event - enough information to weigh their options and act accordingly. Overcoming decades of policies to instruct people simply to evacuate takes a radical change in most organizational thinking. As a friend of mine stated, "Run for your life! is not a good evacuation plan."  Research indicates the better method of ensuring life safety in evacuation is to inform the public about the threat, the seriousness of the threat, and their options for action.  The second part is the difference between accurate and precise.  Let's be honest - information provided by the emergency system (e.g., media, elected officials) may be precise in nature but not necessarily accurate in facts (or vice versa). 

Here's where the application of web-based GIS maps can serve multiple purposes.  First, web-based GIS maps could be used to inform the public of optional evacuation routes in real time, giving them what to expect at which points, travel distance/times between points, and status of the level of the threat. Traffic monitoring is already available for mobile devices and is used extensively in media news. Second, the same web-based GIS could provide emergency responders additional information and traffic control and traffic access points real-time stacking assessments.  The combination of these (and assuredly other services) can provide dynamic information tools to aid organizations in planning and to protect lives in the 'unlikely event' that evacuation should be required.



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January 12, 2010

The National Alliance for Public Safety GIS (NAPSG) is a consortium of national organizations representing local government, public safety, and health professionals with a shared vision of advancing the effective use of GIS for public safety. Among those national organizations are the International Association of Fire Fighters, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the  International Association of Emergency Managers, the National Emergency Number Association, and the National Association of State Fire Marshals. There are others as well, listed on their website.
The Alliance encourages on regional coordination among emergency agencies and promoting best practices, while serving as the political advocate for GIS on behalf of the member organizations. The Alliance establishes a national vision and articulates major goals that support the emergency management community as a whole.  The Alliance was not established to carry out training programs and related activities. To that end, the Alliance looks to the NAPSG Foundation to be the operational arm to support the goals of the Alliance.
The NAPSG Foundation is independent of the Alliance with a separate Board of Directors and governance structure. As a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, the Foundation focuses on developing and deploying projects at the local and regional levels to carry out the visions of the Alliance. The Foundation serves as the unified voice of the Alliance  by advancing of public safety education and research. Though these efforts, the Foundation can help the public safety community implement GIS programs that support local and national preparedness goals.
The Foundation is helping develop a national professional GIS preparedness capability for public safety agencies because, as many EM professionals recognize, the public preparedness level is highest at the local level (where complexity of incidents is lowest)but the critical need for improved coordination among multiple agencies is at the regional and national levels (where complexity is highest).  GIS is one of the key elements that contribute to more complete information, better communications and coordinated incident management in dealing with complex incidents. 
In 2009, the Foundation posted a free publication "How to Build a GIS for Your Fire Department" on its website and delivered 6 Fire/EMS User Group Meetings throughout the US. The Foundation coordinated with DHS Science & Technology Directorate to set-up the GIS Working Group under the Virtual USA initiative and facilitated the development of a framework for a "National Strategy to Operationalize GIS." This is exceptional contributions for a brand new organization.
This year, the Foundation's activities and events include a "GIS for Public Safety Training Summit" for selected public safety leaders, the development of a web-based "Capability & Readiness Assessment Tool" (so locals may evaluate their existing GIS capabilities, identify gaps, and determine next steps), and deliver a Spring 2010 series of regional Fire/EMS GIS User Group Meetings. These were most welcomed last year by many of the fire and emergency professionals that attended. Look for one in your region this year!


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January 19, 2010

If your agency depends on broadband access for mobile GIS in fire engines, police cars, rescue vehicles and command units and you are frustrated when access disappears as you approach an emergency scene in the middle of nowhere, your problems may be coming to and end...not just here in the US but in many parts of the world.

According to Communications Review (Vol. 14, No. 3) , mobile access in North America was "virtually non-existent" in 2005 but grew to a $1.1 billion market in the US and $120 million market in Canada last year. Driving the rapid expansion is the public migration to smart phones and other wireless technologies. As the hunger for wireless communications grows (along with the seemingly insatiable hunger for personal 24/7 communications), mobile access networks will continue to expand. The key driving force for the rapid expansion in the US has been the June 2007 launch of Apple'iPhone, the first major touch screen device that provided mobile access for music, calendars, address book, internet browsing, and GPS/traffic access, and tens of thousands of personal applications that answer individual entertainment and services. Coupled with the network expansion, the Federal Communications Commission's reassigning the 700 and 800mHz  band widths for public agencies the availability of emergency management networks promise easer (and reliable) access to responding emergency units.

For GIS applications using handheld units for data gathering and remote sensing hardware, data for mapping should be more readily available and much faster than before. Coupled with faster GIS servers and hardware like the data fusion centers, delayed or inadequate access to real time data could be a thing of the past. 


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January 19, 2010

On January 12, 2010, the earth shifted in the poorest country in the western hemisphere and the losses are still being assessed. From the reports on television, radio and print, the devastation in Haiti is akin to that in the US on September 11, 2001, except that emergency responders now are trying to muster the needed resources and information in a rush to locate and save those trapped and missing. Fortunately, there's a lot of assistance that is not making headlines or broadcast news.

Many agencies and organizations (in the US and the world) have made excellent geological data available, as the earthquakes have occurred and have been predictable in the region for centuries. Infrastructure data, however, may be almost as scarce as the actual infrastructure itself in Haiti, but that information, sketchy as it may be, is being assembled, refined and made available. Social, medical, water and other essential data is being gathered and made available to first responders. Building and construction data would be quite valuable to response teams as well as communications data. All of this needs to be mapped for overall coordination of the relief effort. Eventually, GIS will be able to locate and account for fatalities, as in the wildfires in Australia in 2009. Even as the event draws to a close, GIS specialists will continue gather data to provide a complete assessment of the rescue and relief efforts as well as indicators for improving GIS capabilities for future emergencies. 

If your agency or organization is considering a response to Haiti or if you'd like to review some of the maps that are available, I suggest that you begin at the ESRI/ArcGIS data site that includes basic maps, earthquake maps, imagery, and layers to assist in emergency response, search and rescue. Other good resources for exploring Haiti's geospatial information include the GIS Lounge and Google Maps

For emergency managers, perhaps while we follow the world-wide efforts in Haiti, you might want to review the availability of geospatial intelligence in your local or regional responsibility and consider if and when that data would be available to your responders when the earthquake, flood, fire, blizzard, or human-caused emergency begins. This is the opportunity for another "lesson to be learned" and acted upon.


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January 22, 2010

Comedian/talk show host Jay Leno once asked people on the street "Who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave?" None of his selected interviewees knew. But when asked who "lives in a pineapple under the sea", everyone knew. Funny, yes, but disturbing on several levels.

When listening to the news of Somali pirates over the past year, there was general agreement among most people that the threat and activities of the pirates were bad, but few could actually locate Somalia on a globe. In the break up the Soviet Union a decade ago, countries were dividing and changing names rapidly for months. The U.S. military found themselves stationed in countries that really didn't exist a few weeks before they arrived or had changed names and politics while they never left their base. How many US citizens followed the changing geopolitical scene with anymore than mild curiosity? 

Now that GPS units for travel directions are getting cheaper, they are showing up in cars and trucks all over. The drivers are generally concerned about only one piece of geographic information - where am I?  Emergencies require a bigger geographic picture.

First responders arriving at an emergency scene know where they are but may not know what other dangers lie in their proximity…. either geographically, temporally, or at what level of risk. I remember the astonishment of first responders in training to handle a incident involving a person hit by a train. Handling the incident becomes the single focus to the detriment of assessing other serious risks. Okay, you know where the train engine is, now what's on the rest of the train? (hazardous chemicals? nuclear or explosive materials?) and you might want to find out when the next train is scheduled to arrive on the tracks where you set up rescue operations (oops!). 

Of course, emergency managers and incident commanders should always be able to know about the dangers most near them and have situational awareness in handling local incidents, but situational awareness must also be wider in scope than the immediate needs of the incident. GIS intelligence may begin with 'where' but also includes 'what', 'how long' and 'when.' The difficult part is that future situational awareness depends, in larger part, on educating more emergency managers, incident commanders, and, yes, children on the geography of our towns, states, country and world and less on where "I" am. 


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January 23, 2010

How many conferences have you attended and wished you'd stayed home, doing something more productive, like counting paper clips? Well, that won't be the case in this conference! And it's free!! 

The event is the 11 th Annual Technologies for Critical Incident Preparedness (TCIP) Conference and Expo in Philadelphia, February 2-4, 2010. 

For me, the highlight of this year's conference will be the opening session on DHS's recently announced Virtual USA initiative (an effort supported by the NAPSG Foundation to advance data interoperability/sharing for emergency responders) and the 'Power of GIS' panel session for which the NAPSG Foundation's Vice-Chair Rand Napoli will serve as the moderator.  (Insider tip: Rand is also a member of the Virtual USA GIS Working Group along with NAPSG Foundation Chairman Chief Keith Richter).

The conference includes sessions on prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery and the technological and training tools available for the emergency response community to effectively manage future hazards and incidents. The conference is an opportunity attendees to have directly meet with Federal agencies and members of the public safety community on current emergency response challenges and the brainstorming of potential solutions.    

The event is sponsored by the DHS Science & Technology Directorate and co-hosted by the Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Defense (DoD). The National Alliance for Public Safety GIS Foundation (NAPSG Foundation) is a partner organization.  (Check out my 1/12/10 blog for more information.) 

Key speakers include White House Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison, and Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers.

I'll be there, too, and look forward to meeting my readers (both of you!). Stop by the NAPSIG Foundation exhibit booth and say hello. 


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January 27, 2010

Tired of hearing about the predictions for the future during this first month of the second decade of the 21st century? But still like to think about the future? How people might live and work in cities? Could it be like the sci-fi movies and novels predict? Will your GIS of today evolve into a systemic essential element for life? emergency responders? cities and towns and those that live and work in them?

In a recent blog by Adam Christensen at Building a Smarter Planet , he provides five innovative changes that might occur in our cites in the future. As he explains, these changes are likely to include:

  1. Healthier immune systems through the built environment for residents and office inhabitants. 
  2. Smart buildings that respond like living organisms
  3. Cars and city buses will no longer rely on fossil fuels
  4. Smarter systems will improve water quality and quantities
  5. Emergency services will respond before receiving an emergency phone call
The "future challenge" for you readers and GIS advocates is to read Adam's blog , watch the video, and list as many of the changes that will rely on or be enhanced by GIS applications. Send your ideas in your comments. We'll compare our lists in a future blog. 


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January 29, 2010










Since 2001, public attention on terrorism has seemed to focused on possible attacks only from foreign extremists. Following every report of a possible or attempted attack, airport security is tightened; public fear increases; and a new wave of insecurity and mistrust sweeps through agencies and citizens alike. This was not the case in pre-9/11 days, even when a landmark incident occurred.  In 1995, America experienced a terrorist attack of proportions not previously experienced in preceding decades. The incident killed 168 people, including 19 children in a day care center. The terrorists used explosives concocted from ordinary materials in an attack on a government office building. They were not from the middle east, Pakistan, Afghanistan, southeast Asia, or Somalia. They were the domestic terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. SInce the 1995 attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, seventy-five terrorist incidents have claimed the lives of 28 law enforcement officers and injured many more law enforcement, fire service, emergency medical, and other emergency response personnel.  So what does this have to do with spatial intelligence? There are hundreds of hate groups in America responsible for an estimated 191,000 reported and unreported hate crimes occur each year. The Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, tracks incidents of domestic terrorism and the locations of the known organized groups, large and small. 


Last fall, the Center issued a report on pl ots, conspiracies, and racial rampages since the Oklahoma City bombing, compete with (you got it!) a map of the location of hate groups. This generalized hate groups map provides a spatial assessment indicating the concentrations of various groups responsible for and having the potential for domestic terrorism, both large and small scale incidents.  Law enforcement agencies should be aware of the location and movements of hate groups in their regions, but do they share the potential risks with emergency managers, fire service personnel on a regular basis? Does the emergency manager, fire chief, EMS manager ask? Objectively, terrorism might be the motivation behind an incident, and emergency responders and managers must deal with the situation as they find it at the scene. But having the intelligence of motive (reason) of the incident could provide indicators of the type of response needed and help guide the actions of responders more safely (e.g., dangers of additional explosive devices, biological or chemical contamination, snipers). Spatial intelligence is more than mapping the closest fire hydrant, storm drain, or hospital. It's knowing why you need to know where they are. 


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