Instant access to vital information: The role of GIS

GIS used successfully with leading public safety software will continue to offer the speed and performance needed to respond when seconds matter.


     Every incident called in to a 911 center is associated with a real-world location where people need help. Immediate location awareness for dispatch and first responders during an incident can often mean the difference between life and death. Today the majority of law enforcement agencies use some degree of Geographic Information Systems (GIS)/mapping technology to locate callers and provide first responders with critical information before arriving on scene. Although GIS capabilities can vary greatly between agencies, one thing remains the same — the more information readily available and clearly visible, the faster the response.

     The use of GIS in law enforcement is nothing new. For years GIS has provided agencies with call location and incident analysis. However, in recent years GIS has evolved to provide significantly more information to improve safety and answer important questions during an emergency. Mapping tools, including GPS, Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) and aerial imagery, have further enhanced the amount of information available to dispatchers during an active incident. The location of fire hydrants, critical infrastructure, physical land features and officers in the field is readily available to dispatchers. GIS makes it possible for them to immediately recognize spatial relationships, helping to make better decisions when time is a crucial factor.

     In response to growing industry needs, providers of public safety software are incorporating the latest GIS technologies and capabilities into their solutions. Public safety software has evolved to be more "map centric," providing officers on patrol, dispatchers, investigators and fire/EMS teams unprecedented access to vital information that previously was unavailable. There is a broad range of valuable location information that can be accessed through a centralized GIS database, including:

  • Building floor plans and alarm codes,
  • Prior incidents,
  • Known offenders, registered sex offenders or arrest warrants associated with an address,
  • Medical information of residents,
  • Property owner or business contact information, and
  • Permits issued by the city or county for firearms, alarms, hazardous materials, etc.

     This creates a complete emergency response solution that combines historical data from a records management system (RMS) with feature-rich maps that are accessible in real time through Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) software.

     The importance of GIS in emergency response can be better understood by exploring how agencies across the country use GIS technology to improve their ability to respond to emergencies.

Breaking the silos of critical information
     GIS and mapping capabilities have grown from being a niche technology used by planning and public works departments. Public safety and law enforcement professionals now recognize the benefits of using GIS as one of their primary tools. However, there has been a history of creating and storing GIS data into multiple and separate data silos by the many departments within local government. The information kept in these silos can prove to be invaluable to law enforcement. For example, human services may keep a listing of Alzheimer's patients' addresses. The court system likely has a listing of addresses where civil papers have been issued or where registered sex offenders reside. The road commission maintains a schedule of road closures and ongoing road construction projects. The fire department maintains substantial information about commercial buildings, including floor plans, alarm codes, evacuation routes and on-premise hazardous materials.

     A significant improvement in GIS technology now allows these silos of data to be shared with each other in near real time. This provides first responders with critical information before they arrive at a scene. Prior to this advancement, important GIS data has been unavailable to those people who can benefit from it the most.

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