Is there still a lack of belief in GIS among emergency management leaders?

May 21, 2019

Adopting the use of GIS for disaster response

In a StateScoop podcast earlier this year, Richard Butgereit, director of catastrophe response for the Geospatial Intelligence Center and the former chief information officer of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, stated: “There’s still just a lack of adoption, a lack of belief in the power of GIS that you can see, and not enough investments in the resources and training. [It] comes down to people are simply afraid to share data.”

We found this article interesting because we frequently encounter this issue in discussions with NG9-1-1 stakeholders. Many of the DATAMARK team members also have their own stories as former stakeholders in the 9-1-1 community. Here’s an example.

In 2005 and 2006, Columbia County, Washington was faced with swift-moving wildland fires known as the School Fire and Columbia Complex Fire, respectively. They traveled quickly through forest lands and into the area of urban interface. Notification, evacuation and the identification of resources became paramount.

Columbia County is a rural farming community served by three volunteer fire departments and one dispatch center. During the initial phase of the fire, the 9-1-1 dispatch center was tasked with identifying the location of the fire, directing resources, determining jurisdictional responsibility and providing evacuation instructions to the community.

Within the first 48 hours of each fire, approximately 1,800 personnel from across the country had settled in the community to provide firefighting support. During each incident, firefighters created new data by identifying structures in the fire area using hand held GPS devices, capturing hazards for firefighter safety, and gathering parcel information for identification of land ownership. This information was provided to the fire management team for aggregation and inclusion in the daily situational report.

All this rich information was taken with the incident management teams when they were released from the incident to return home. Where did the raw data go that had been captured? Processes and workflows were not in place, so the valuable geospatial information gathered during the incidents could not be transferred to the local jurisdiction upon completion of the incident.

Existing tabular and geospatial data, such as CAD mapping, printed maps, binders, flip charts and other county department databases, were used by the dispatch center, field units and incident management team during the incident. The combination of new and existing data provided a holistic picture of the fire locations, hazards, legal ownership and water sources, and assisted in the overall decision-making processes. However, gathering this information was tedious and slow due to the disparate source locations and ownership of data.

Disasters are inevitable, and we need to be prepared to respond quickly to these events. The time to embrace GIS to enable data-driven decisions is now, so that when disaster strikes, we are better prepared.

Here are several questions to consider in making your preparations:

  • Have you included GIS workflows in your planning processes?
  • How could data ingestion and storage be streamlined?
  • How could this GIS data be shared for response and post response activities?
  • Where does data reside if it is known by the local jurisdiction?
  • What departments or agencies are involved before, during and after a disaster?
  • Could the GIS data be stored in one location for use not only pre-incident, but during and post incident?

DATAMARK’s public safety team promotes stakeholder engagement and planning across all jurisdictions to gather public safety quality data for use during emergencies.

By: Stephanie McCowat

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