Mapping a response

When Arlington County, Va., began using geographic information systems a few years ago, the main reason was to track real estate and land parcels to determine tax assessments.

Times have changed. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the county for the first time is integrating GIS into its emergency dispatch system. Officials also are working to compile geographic datasets as part of a nationwide effort to catalog critical infrastructures in more than 100 metropolitan areas. And when the Washington, D.C., area sniper struck in October, the county contributed GIS data to support the investigation.

"We're more involved now in public safety issues," said Mary Beth Fletcher, manager of Arlington County's GIS mapping center. "There's a general awareness that GIS plays a larger role in some

of these [emergency] response


Some state and local technology executives argue that GIS will play a central role in emergency response. Agencies view GIS as a key homeland security tool as they gear up to prepare for and respond to future terrorist attacks. Some GIS experts say the technology provides a common operational view of a given emergency, while others refer to GIS as a digital dashboard for managing responses to disasters.

But considerable work needs to be done before GIS can fully reach its potential as a digital rallying point. The good news for state and local agencies is that their existing GIS systems can be reworked for public safety and homeland security use.

However, those seeking to employ GIS in emergency planning and response management face several challenges. Many agencies need to acquire additional datasets to gird themselves for emergency situations, but have limited resources to do so (see box, below). Differences in how various jurisdictions use map symbols and define map content also are hurdles to be overcome. And then there's the issue of securing GIS data.

Government agencies and industry groups are working to overcome those challenges. They believe the task of harnessing GIS data is worth the effort.

"GIS is absolutely critical," said Don Heiman, a former chief information officer of Kansas who still acts as a consultant to the state. "When you think about how much of what we do is geography based, that is a dimension of data that is so useful."

Mike Osbourn, e911 planning coordinator for Cumberland County, said the county began collecting "critical facility information for dispatch purposes" even before last year's terrorist attacks. A master GIS map is maintained at the county's primary dispatch center. Dispatch centers in smaller towns, a sheriff's department dispatch center and a dispatch center for Fayetteville city emergency services also make use of the GIS data. Cumberland County uses MapInfo Corp. GIS and Autodesk Inc.'s AutoCAD.

Osbourn said GIS lends a "spatial awareness" to 911 dispatch systems. A dispatch center once used a grid system to locate places, but that approach is "not as intuitive as looking at a map," he said.

Arlington's mapping center, meanwhile, will support the county's new 911 emergency management system. GIS data "will be used in that system and we're still working through the particulars on that," Fletcher said. The county has purchased an emergency dispatch system from Tiburon Inc., but has not started using the system.

Beyond 911, state and local agencies have made other

forays into public safety-oriented

GIS applications. King County, Wash., uses GIS to map natural hazards. "We've done some mapping for mudflows," said Eric Holdeman, who manages the county's Office of Emergency Management, noting the state's volcanic hazards. King County also uses GIS to map flood zones.

Kansas "cut its teeth" using GIS for emergency response in April 2001, when a tornado struck Hoisington, Kan., Heiman said. In that situation, GIS was used to help route emergency vehicles to the disaster scene. Since the tornado in Hoisington, the state has developed additional applications. Recently, the state debuted a GIS-based system that will help the rural state respond to an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease. The application tracks

livestock, including animals transported via truck or rail, and has the ability to coordinate quarantines and roadblocks.

Heiman said the state's GIS experience can be translated into homeland security applications. The hoof-and-mouth application, for example, could help contain an outbreak whether the contamination is incidental or malicious. Additional applications may stem from that GIS tool, Heiman added. "The core of that application can be extended to all sorts of infrastructure threats," he said.

In addition, Kansas has a GIS-based application that tracks groundwater quality, which Heiman said could also be used to alert the public to an assault on the water supply. Kansas also has a GIS component in its e-trucking portal, which helps route trucks through the state. The system lets state officials know where trucks are and what they are carrying, which provides a "remarkable extension into homeland security," according to Heiman.

One key issue is expanding GIS datasets to include elements that would help manage an emergency response. The National Imagery and Mapping Agency, Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Geological Survey are sponsoring an initiative to collect critical infrastructure data in more than 120 metropolitan areas. The agencies are asking localities to collect what they term "minimum essential datasets," or MEDS. Local government cooperation is, thus far, voluntary. But many agencies are seeking to expand their datasets.

Federal government officials hope local governments will include such information as the locations of clinics and pharmacies, which could aid in emergency response. The government also is interested in utility data, such as the location of natural gas transmission pipelines.

"I think what everyone has learned as a result of [Sept. 11] is that you really need the data," Fletcher said. "You can't provide the kind of analysis that [the federal government] needs without the data."

Interoperability among GIS applications and information sharing among the organizations running them are other concerns (see box, Page S8).

Disasters on a scale of the September terrorist attacks tend to span multiple jurisdictions, underscoring the need for data sharing. Such efforts as the Federal Geographic Data Committee's (FGDC) National Spatial Data Infrastructure and the work of such groups as the Open GIS Consortium (OGC) have improved technical interoperability.

But elements as prosaic as symbols used on maps pose a problem, observers say. "The basic problem right now is that different groups are using different map symbols to communicate the same information," said Mike Domaratz, a USGS cartographer who co-chairs FGDC's Interagency Homeland Security Working Group. Different jurisdictions may have different map symbols for hospitals, for example.

"The lack of having common symbols will slow and degrade communications," Domaratz said. "You don't want to lose time and potentially have lives and property at risk."

To address this issue, a subgroup of FGDC's homeland security working group is drafting a minimum set of symbols for details commonly found on maps used in emergency response, according to Domaratz.

Similarly, differences in how state and local governments define a map's information content could also hinder coordination among neighboring jurisdictions.

"Different communities have different ways to describe geographic features," said Jeffrey Harrison, executive director of OGC's Interoperability Program. He refers to this challenge as "semantic


"At the state and local level, there is no standard way to describe a water network," said Mark Doherty, director of government solutions for Integraph Corp. Mapping and GIS Solutions. "Different jurisdictions will have different content in the database and different names for features."

Integraph, however, is exploring schema mapping technology, which would translate one organization's semantic view of data into a "common semantic view," Doherty said.

Domaratz said his working group is attempting to "identify


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