Caught with your plans down?

Publication: Law Enforcement Technology
June 1, 2010
By Douglas Page

One disaster manager calls it “GIS for Dummies.” The state of Georgia calls it indispensable.

In June of 2004, the G8 Summit was held on Sea Island, Ga., 80 miles south of Savannah. G8 Summits are magnets for protestors. An estimated 200,000 demonstrators gathered in Genoa, Italy, during the 2001 Summit. The year before, some 20,000 armed police, six navy warships, and a 2-kilometer nautical exclusion zone were necessary to protect world leaders assembled for the G8 on Okinawa, Japan. The remote Georgia location was chosen because it was nearly impossible for protestors to access.

Nevertheless, Georgia authorities were prepared for the worst. One essential tool that helped them get ready was a new GIS mapping system developed in academia called the Geographic Tool for Visualization and Collaboration, or GTVC. Developed by engineers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, GTVC gave emergency managers a new way to coordinate incident planning in real time.

GTVC is designed to track the location and availability of critical emergency resources such as hospitals, transportation equipment, and water during disasters.

“GTVC enables an easy, secure mechanism for sharing geographically oriented information regarding emergency response planning,” says Kirk Pennywitt, a senior research engineer in GTRI’s Information Technology and Telecommunications Laboratory.

Pennywitt says that the GTVC kit provides tools that let managers easily annotate maps of an area of interest using Department of Homeland Security-compliant symbology. It provides messaging and incident tracking, and supplies detailed text information regarding an event. The system interfaces with resource databases and electronic alert systems to facilitate the search and display of the closest resources.

“GTVC is unique in providing a Java-based client-server real-time collaborative view of an exercise or live situation,” Pennywitt says.

Currently, GTVC is used to support the Georgia Office of Homeland Security and other first responders in Georgia, and is commercially licensed as a component of the National Emergency Management Network. The system is currently being configured by the Georgia Trauma Commission to track all ambulances in the state of Georgia to better coordinate responses in the event of a multi-jurisdictional mass-casualty incident. Pennywitt says the ambulance-tracking feature should be online within the next three months.

GTVC has also been adopted by the Florida Department of Emergency Management, as well as several other state and county agencies throughout the United States.

Pennywitt says GTVC allows a variety of different map and imagery types to be used from multiple map servers (including user-provided products), automatically records all actions in a relational database so that a complete audit trail of all activities in a session is maintained, and provides the ability to graphically playback any portion of a session from any user’s point of view so that after-action reporting and analysis can easily be performed.

“It was deliberately designed with ease-of-use in mind and does not require any GIS expertise to effectively utilize its mapping capabilities,” Pennywitt explains. GTVC is open architecture, meaning it can be easily extended via plug-in modules.

GIS for dummies

One attractive feature of GTVC is its relative simplicity.

“GTVC is GIS for dummies,” says Ralph Reichert, director of the Terrorism Emergency Response and Preparedness division of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. What he means is that many GIS platforms require a degree of computer knowledge and training that most responders and command staff lack.

“With minimal training, GTVC can be used to add value to both strategic and tactical planning,” Reichert says.

At the Sea Island Summit, GTVC was used to connect all command posts, including two FBI Joint Operations Centers at St. Simons and Savannah; the Multi Agency Coordination Center; and various operational command posts, such as bomb disposal, mobile field forces, intelligence, and traffic control.

“This provided a common operating picture throughout all venues, which allowed command staff to position resources as required,” Reichert says.

GTVC was also used more recently, during the 2007 South Georgia wildfires.

“GTVC was able to provide real-time data regarding the location and status of fires and firefighting assets so emergency operation center staff could determine protective action and resource activities,” Reichert says.

Reichert explains that a common operating picture of a crisis is essential for first responders, and sharing that picture with various command posts and emergency operations centers is equally important.

The system allows users to add or hide layers, enter text and location data, grant various levels of access, and display preloaded critical infrastructure and key resource information, which is of tremendous value in response.

Ship of tools

The market sometimes seems awash in emerging mapping solutions. The better mapping tools allow access to real-time data to make realtime decisions.

“Such decisions can also be made with the integration of modeling, especially in the area of hazardous plumes and chemicals entering the environment through spills, leaks, or malice,” says Stacey Schultz, a policy analyst at the University of Maryland’s Center for Health and Homeland Security.

One tool, called DragonForce from the Camden, N.J.-based company Drakontas, augments an agency’s existing technology and equipment investments by running on commercial-off-the-shelf devices like the BlackBerry smartphone.

“An incident commander can know at any given time where various assets are located via geo-referenced maps and GPS technology,” says Michael Mitkus, Drakontas manager of sales and marketing. Mitkus adds that the system allows public safety professionals to exchange information such as building floor plans, suspect mug shots and text messages in real-time, all of which enhance situational awareness.

Mitkus says DragonForce can provide critical information during high-risk tactical situations, such as warrant service, hostage scenarios, and active shooting incidents.

“It can also be deployed for day-to-day missions and for routine patrols to improve operations and facilitate faster emergency response,” he says.

Another system, the Geographic Search and Referencing Platform, or GSRP from MetaCarta, based in Cambridge, Mass., automatically geotags all sources of unstructured and semi-structured information, including news feeds and local file repositories. By displaying this data on maps, GSRP helps users detect developing hot spots or understand the twists and extent of a crisis.

The GSRP system can alert users to increasing chatter about, say, a certain parking structure near an infrastructure asset, or instantly detect hot spots of activity as they emerge from live news streams and other inputs. GSRP also helps disaster managers understand spatial associations between events, such as anecdotal reports of flooding occurring near a power generating plant or other critical assets.

“Smuggling of drugs and guns across the Mexican border is an emergency every day,” says Ken Tomaselli, MetaCarta vice president. “GSRP allows analysts to see the corridors of movement, whether an isolated incident of a gun cache or drug deal, which can take on a much larger significance when correlated on a map with other events over a period of time.”

Ready, aim, buyer

Buying GIS mapping technology is the easy part. Agencies also have to educate the emergency management user community about the capabilities, develop and integrate these capabilities into plans and procedures, and develop training and exercises to ensure necessary skills are retained.

The driving force is often a smart IT department, which is itself driven by other departments that use GIS for routine operations, such as police, fire, planning, zoning, public works and public health.

“GIS capabilities and investment by these stakeholders can often provide a solid foundation to support emergency management mitigation, response, continuity of operations, and long-term recovery activities,” says Greg Moser, executive director of the University of Denver’s Homeland Security Program.

Moser says GIS has enormous potential in all phases of emergency management and homeland security.

“The general benefit is in the management of large amounts of information and rendering it into coherent situational display to support decision making,” he says.

Pettis County, Mo., uses an everyday system called Beacon, made by Schneider in Indianapolis, for digitizing public records. But when a series of tornados hit the region in 2006, the county realized the full value of the application. During the crisis, Beacon was used to direct search and rescue operations. After the wind stopped and the region was declared a disaster area, Beacon helped the county rapidly acquire federal grant monies.

“Without this technology we would not have been able to leverage the incident for federal funding that we received as quickly as we did,” says Pettis County commissioner Rusty Kahrs.

He explains that since the disaster data was readily available and in a proper format, the county was able to acquire over $3 million in federal grant funding to build storm shelters throughout the region. The system even helped spot the shelters.

“Using Beacon, we were able to map out logical locations for the shelters to ensure that all residents were within 3 miles of a shelter, and to place the shelters in areas where fewer homes had their own basements,” Kahrs says.

What’s next

Emergency mapping technology has come a long way in a short time. As a discipline, emergency management only began to emerge in the 1980s to 90s as civil defense was phased out and local, state, and federal agencies, service organizations, and the private sector started to wrestle with trying to integrate first response, disaster mitigation, and long-term recovery efforts.

“Emergency management technologies continue to evolve quicker than most of us can learn about them and integrate them into our efforts,” Moser says. This, of course, has been complicated by the emergence of terrorism as a national security threat and the need for homeland security to integrate all levels of government and society in a national response network.

“A lot of effort and investment has been made in this area since 9/11, but we are far from fully realizing the potential of these technologies,” Moser says.

New solutions emerging include the integration of emergency operations center smartphones and use of point locations, similar to the use of GPS roadside assistance in automobiles. It’s a matter of being able to gather information and put it on a map to make even more informed decisions.

“As technology continues to evolve, especially with the availability of online maps like Google Earth and the widespread use of smartphones, we’re beginning to see how optimized integration of technology can get relevant information into the hands of those who can benefit the most from it,” Schultz says.

One example is how organizations are pushing more data out to mobile devices for verification and in-field assessment.

Other advancements are poised to appear in next generation mapping tools.

“A major new trend is dynamic resource allocation,” Tomaselli says. By continuously adjusting the deployment of field resources, first responders can quell small hot spots before they grow, and therefore cover more territory faster.

Mitkus says mapping solutions in the future will involve more direct user interaction with geospatial information.

“Users will be able to add their own layers, such as points of interest and geospatial features relevant to their specific mission, and share those layers with others across multiple command echelons,” he says. In that regard, according to Mitkus, incident command tools will offer public safety-grade versions of consumer applications, such as friend-finders and restaurant reviews.

He adds: “These flexible architectures will merge geo-referenced data points with specific, secure information that emergency responders need to do their jobs.”

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