Instant access to vital information: The role of GIS

     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.

Simple map proves invaluable
     In the middle of a cold winter night, a 911 call is received at a communications center in an affluent suburb of Chicago, Illinois. A woman reports a suspicious vehicle parked across the street from her house. She tells the dispatcher that there appears to be multiple individuals entering and exiting the vehicle, and she reports having seen it circle the block several times. Officers are dispatched to the area.

     The dispatcher directs responding officers to the vehicle in an unfamiliar neighborhood with directions from their embedded GIS map within CAD. As the officers pull up to the suspicious vehicle, a person flees on foot and another is found hiding in the car. One of the responding officers pursues the fleeing individual and the other stays behind to wait for back-up.

     Back in the communications center, a second 911 call has come in from a resident who says he has been tied up in his basement by unknown subjects. The dispatcher instinctively looks to the CAD map to identify the exact location of this incident. He can clearly see that this second incident has taken place just around the block from the location of the suspicious vehicle. This discovery immediately changes the dynamic of the first call. The officers already at the scene are notified that the two incidents are likely related and to be on the lookout for more suspects in the area. Within minutes, the dispatcher is able to direct additional units to set up an effective perimeter in the area, which ultimately leads to the capture and arrest of several fleeing suspects.

     Access to GIS directly within CAD gives dispatchers an advantage when guiding officers in the field by offering a bigger picture of the surrounding area. In this case, the ability to see the layout of the land during an active incident enabled the dispatcher to recognize the connection between the two incidents. The officers at this scene were limited by their knowledge of that area, but the dispatcher, visualizing the entire scene through a CAD map, was able to provide enough information about the layout of the neighborhood to guide officers through unfamiliar terrain and aid in the set-up of a successful perimeter.

Growing cellular world and satellites
     A new challenge for emergency response personnel arose with the introduction and mainstream use of cellular phones. In 2000, nearly one-third of all 911 calls placed originated from cell phones, and the number continues to grow. It is critical for agencies to be able to locate a wireless caller who is unaware of or unable to describe his location.

     Mapping tools, including GPS and Phase II technology, have become a critical tool dispatchers rely on. These technologies enable the location of a cellular call to be found on a map with relative certainty. Using latitude and longitude information sent from a cellular phone, different technologies can locate the caller — in most cases, within meters of the actual location on the CAD map.

     Another important use of GPS location technology is the ability to provide real-time location of units on duty. Many agencies today have deployed AVL to allow incident managers to quickly see where units are in relation to incidents. GIS software also can provide estimated response times for units based on constraints such as speed limits, traffic patterns and rivers or bridges. This capability, coupled with in-car mapping technology, provides field personnel with a complete view of active incidents.

Making sense of large, unpopulated areas
     GIS and Phase II technology are particularly important in rural regions. Responsible for a New Mexico county that measures 5,600 square miles, a 911 center uses Phase II technology combined with geographical features to locate callers. Not long after the county adopted Phase II, the 911 center received a call for help from a man who had been assaulted and needed medical attention.

     The perpetrators had driven the victim through rural back roads and dropped him off in an unfamiliar location. Receiving latitude and longitude coordinates through Phase II technology, the dispatcher was able to determine his location within the county and quickly send help to the injured man. Without the use of GIS technology, the dispatcher would have spent precious time conducting a much longer examination of the victim's location, potentially allowing his condition to worsen.

     The county uses the same GIS technology to combat drunk driving. With the help of effective state-wide campaigns, the 911 center has been receiving more calls to report suspected drunk drivers. Often the callers are on the move and unsure of their exact location. In this situation, Phase II technology becomes an invaluable tool that allows the dispatcher to locate the caller, and in some cases, even track them in real time as they move by rebidding the call. The ability to constantly monitor the location of the caller allows the dispatcher to make fast decisions and give first responders turn-by-turn directions to locate the suspected drunk driver.

More detail in the middle of nowhere
     In some cases dispatchers must locate a caller and guide him to safety. This means the dispatcher must have all of the necessary details and full access to a view of the entire scene as quickly as possible. Oblique aerial imagery offers additional GIS tools to dispatchers in the form of 3D-like images of an area with key details, including whether a building is made of brick or concrete, how many stories a building is, how deep a ravine is, or the acreage of a wooded area. By having access to oblique aerial imagery directly within the CAD map, a dispatcher can better analyze a scene by measuring distance, angles and height of physical features. Access to this information proved valuable for one county dispatcher in New York.

     In this county, a hunter was lost in a rural wooded area. His dog was trapped at the bottom of a ravine with 300-foot walls, and his attempts to retrieve the dog forced him to carefully climb to the bottom. The hunter ended up being trapped at the bottom of the ravine and used his cell phone to call 911 for help.

     At the county communications center, the dispatcher used Phase II technology to plot the hunter's location. He soon realized the hunter was in a very remote area — far away from any roads — and more information was needed to locate and guide the hunter to safety. Using oblique aerial imagery, the dispatcher was able to recognize specific landmarks. He then asked the hunter questions about physical features in the area and compared them to the landmarks on his CAD map to determine the hunter's exact location. As the hunter described features, including a heavily wooded area and the shape of the ravine walls near him, the dispatcher was able to see the exact location on an oblique aerial image.

     The dispatcher used built-in data analysis tools to measure contour lines and assess the area for a location where both the hunter and dog could safely walk out of the ravine. After a few minutes, the dispatcher established that the ravine walls were angled steeply for miles and decided to direct the hunter to a safer location at the bottom of the ravine to wait for rescuers. The dispatcher, using the detailed 3D map of the scene, located a flat island in shallow water at the bottom of the ravine. He directed the hunter to this island, guiding him away from all hazardous areas. After reaching the island, the dispatcher directed the man to an area where the slope of the land provided a safe place for him to walk his way out of the ravine where rescue personnel were waiting.

Quick access to more information
     In all of these situations, the dispatcher was faced with difficult questions that could only be answered with a complete understanding of each scene. Where is the victim calling from? How will I direct first responders to the scene? What obstacles do the responders and the caller need to be aware of? These questions were answered using GIS and mapping technology accessed directly through CAD software.

     Some public safety software providers are successfully working to make it easier for dispatchers to answer these questions and more by embedding GIS information into CAD for immediate spatial awareness. A CAD map is capable of much more than identifying the location of a call if GIS is integrated directly with the emergency response software.

     Embedded GIS allows dispatchers and first responders to access data from within their RMS through CAD as well. When a call comes in to a communications center, vital location details are immediately available through the map including residents, prior history, registered firearms and more because of this integration. As GIS and mapping technologies continue to advance, even more information will become available to dispatchers through integration with public safety software.

     Incidents in progress cannot wait for responders to have perfect information. The ability to recognize spatial relationships immediately often leads to the most effective and successful responses. GIS used successfully with leading public safety software will continue to offer the speed and performance needed to respond when seconds matter.

Greg Wandrei is vice president of sales for the Aegis Public Safety division at New World Systems. Wandrei is responsible for managing large sales and application support teams that provide emergency response solutions to local government entities including public safety, police and fire organizations. New World Systems is a Pictometry and ESRI OEM business partner, committed to providing integrated public safety solutions for more than 25 years.