GIS Moves Online, Enhances Disaster Response with New Data Sources

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multi-agency response efforts.

The benefits of integrating online GIS systems with multiple data sources became apparent in California as emergency management officials scrambled to respond to fast-moving wildfires, such as a 2007 firestorm in San Diego County that killed seven, destroyed 1,500 homes, and forced the evacuation of 500,000 residents. The  Visualization Center of the Geography Department at San Diego State University proved to be the key coordination center during the 2007 fire, but it’s difficult to pull together multiple data sources on the fly.

Today’s technology, though, is “truly transformational in the ability to share information and to overlay data from other sources,” says Ken Burris, Witt O’Brien’s CEO. Yet the system also is flexible enough to provide different information to different users. “There’s no such thing as common operating software, because everybody has different things that they want to see,” Burris says.

“The partnerships are overtaking the technology in emergency management,” says Heltzel, who says the analytic, tracking, and information sharing capabilities being integrated with the system are changing the way his team runs Kentucky’s emergency operations center.

John Heltzel of Kentucky

For example, Heltzel says Kentucky’s response to the tornado outbreak of 2012 was noteworthy because it was the first time his office had used new GIS data capabilities to identify the closest search and rescue teams to the neighborhoods that were hit hardest by the tornadoes. With caches of “mission-ready packages” designated for disaster relief identified as “available” or “not available” on GIS maps, Heltzel says emergency management officials in Kentucky are bringing their initial response time from 72 hours to six.

“The idea is to look at things geospatially, and things start to make a lot more sense,” says Robert Greenberg of G&H International Services, a consulting firm providing technical support for Virtual USA, an initiative intended to establish collaboration and communications among federal, state, and local emergency responders. “To me, the real step forward is in the collaboration between state and local governments to create … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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