"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.
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."