Mapping: An Increasingly Valuable Emergency Management Tool

In 1854, when a cholera outbreak that eventually took the lives of more than 600 people struck London, the mechanism for transmitting the disease was yet unknown. However, an English physician named John Snow noticed that the outbreak seemed to cluster in the area around a public water pump. By mapping cases of the outbreak and using statistical data to link those cases with the source of contagion, he was not only advancing the science of epidemiology, but also integrating geography into the analysis process. Today, a system of data that brings together cartography, statistical analysis, and database technology is known as a Geographic Information System (GIS).

As GIS has evolved, it continues to enhance emergency management in many exciting ways, several of them unimaginable until just a few years ago. Organizing data by jurisdiction, purpose, and/or orientation enhances both the quantity and quality of the relevant information available in a way that provides new insights for, among other goals and objectives: risk assessments; predictions; prescriptions; and organizational, situational, and operational relationships. For that reason alone, GIS is helpful in all phases of emergency management – preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery.

Originally, emergency management used GIS primarily in areas of mitigation such as the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Hazards U.S. (HAZUS) program and flood plain management and mapping. It began to be used, in many more ways, in preparedness – especially in the modeling and simulation of drills and exercises – as well as in response and recovery. One result is that the important damage-assessment process has been enhanced significantly by mapping, as have debris removal, search-and-rescue operations, and all four phases of emergency management.

Tasks & Responsibilities: “There’s an App for That” 

GIS integrates, stores, edits, analyzes, shares, and displays geographic information for the communication of valuable decision-making data in each of these crucial areas. Additional applications for mapping that also directly or indirectly enhance emergency-management capabilities include, but are not necessarily limited to, such tasks and responsibilities as: resource management; asset management and location planning; and the development of environmental impact assessments.

Also: infrastructure assessment and planning; urban and regional planning; logistics; population and demographic studies; statistical analyses; environmental contamination analyses; disease surveillance activities; and, last but not least, military planning.

The still growing number of potential applications ensures that a broad spectrum of disciplines, many of them overlapping and/or complementary, can and do benefit from GIS mapping. Multiple disciplines and jurisdictions are able to interface regularly with emergency managers in an even broader spectrum of tasks and responsibilities, including sustainable development, public health, landscape architecture, community planning, transportation, logistics, crime mapping, national defense, and many other fields.

As GIS diverged into location-based services, geospatial positioning systems (GPSs) enabled mobile devices to provide this information in relation to fixed assets. That important step forward leads to total situational awareness and further enhances GIS usage for and by emergency services personnel in cases such as: (a) a fire service needing help in locating fire hydrants, fire trucks, and ambulances; (b) evacuees looking for the nearest gasoline stations, restaurants, and hotel facilities; and (c) a law enforcement agency in determining the current location of police cars.

VIPER, Virtual Alabama, and Other Programs 

The Virginia Information Program for Emergency Response (VIPER) brings all of the fixed and mobile information assets together to provide almost total situational awareness for the state’s emergency responders and managers. Virtual Alabama, a somewhat similar system in a sister state, has also inspired considerable activity among other states and local communities in similar endeavors. The same types of programs and systems are developing rapidly in many other cities and states across the country.

Charles Werner, the Fire Chief of Charlottesville, Virginia – who also serves as Technology Chair for the International Association of Fire Chiefs – is considered by many of his colleagues to be not only the “thought leader” in this area of technology development but also a leading advocate for the interoperability needed to integrate all of the valuable information now becoming available. He also chaired the Department of Homeland Security’s SAFECOM Program, and led Virginia’s own interoperability and situational awareness initiatives. Werner helps drive the development of technology by working closely and nationally not only with the scientific and technological communities but also with emergency-management and homeland-security specialists in emergency communications and GIS mapping.

Endless Capabilities and Monumental Achievements 

In addition to GPS devices, there is also an explosion of exciting web mapping activities, such as Google Maps and Bing Maps, which offer public access to enormous amounts of geographic data and other information that can be quickly accessed, annotated, and shared. The Google and Bing toolkits usually contain such informational tools as street maps, aerial and satellite imagery, geo-coding and search systems, and routing information and instructions. For emergency management planners, GIS mapping services provide a valuable resource for all levels of emergency planning, ranging from local to international applications.

Local examples of GIS mapping include the ongoing analysis – in Washington, D.C. – of earthquake damage at both the National Cathedral and the Washington Monument. Regionally, emergency management efforts rely on such mapping to monitor commuting patterns, the analysis of which enhances evacuation planning. In addition, animated changes in vegetation before and during a growing season are monitored and can be used to determine when and where a drought was most extensive in a particular region – that highly relevant data might be and often is used for requesting a presidential disaster declaration.

On the national level, remote sensing serves as a key homeland security tool in many counterterrorism initiatives. Internationally, Arctic ice-melting studies would not be possible or as accurate as they are today without GIS mapping. In short, the growing application of earth-surface analysis is limited only by the number of sensors required to provide the necessary data.

Since Snow’s mapping of London’s epidemic in 1854, GIS systems have migrated and evolved into much more tightly integrated “enterprise” approaches that use a service-oriented architecture easily capable of sharing the resources, data, and applications needed by a growing number of agencies, departments, and even private-sector businesses. Modern systems allow application developers to create flexible GIS systems, moreover, that can quickly respond to changing needs, such as emergency situations in the short term and emergency management planning in the long term. The examples of practical applications mentioned here are in fact limited only by the space available, because they are, for all practical purposes, almost endless, increasing with each passing day, and – most important of all – vital to the continued building of the emergency management profession in general.


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Kay Goss
Kay C. Goss

Kay Goss has been the president of World Disaster Management since 2012. She is the former senior assistant to two state governors, coordinating fire service, emergency management, emergency medical services, public safety, and law enforcement for 12 years. She then served as the Associate Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director for National Preparedness, Training, Higher Education, Exercises, and International Partnerships (presidential appointee, U.S. Senate confirmed unanimously). She was a private sector government contractor for 12 years at the Texas firm Electronic Data Systems as a senior emergency manager and homeland security advisor and SRA International’s director of emergency management services. She is a senior fellow at the National Academy for Public Administration and serves as a nonprofit leader on the Board of Advisors for DRONERESPONDERS International and for the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management. She has also been a graduate professor of Emergency Management at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas for 16 years, İstanbul Technical University for 12 years, the MPA Programs Metropolitan College of New York for five years, and George Mason University. She has been a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) for 25 years and a Featured International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) CEM Mentor for five years, and chair of the Training and Education Committee for six years, 2004-2010.



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