More than Mapping: Using GIS for disaster management

By Danny Petrecca


The devastation of Hurricane Sandy and the western wildfires in 2012 are sobering reminders that utilities always need to be prepared to respond to large-scale natural disasters. When faced with incidents of that size, a utility is forced to look at all of its resources in preparation, including those it doesn’t typically utilize under normal conditions. 
Don’t get buried in maps
At its core, enterprise GIS is one of the most important tools utilities need when responding to a major disaster: centralized, readily available, highly accurate spatial information. Utilities employ enterprise GIS in large part to simplify data management and improve the availability of accurate asset and network information. 
As opposed to legacy computer-aided design (CAD) mapping systems, where information was stored largely on paper maps making it virtually impossible to maintain and share an accurate picture of the network across the organization, enterprise GIS allows information to be centrally managed and shared across the entire organization in real-time. Whether in the executive suite or the field truck, users can access the network and be confident they are viewing accurate and up-to-date information.
This is particularly important for utilities that manage multiple services. Instead of attempting to maintain electric, telecom, natural gas and water utilities as separate entities, each with its own individual asset management system, enterprise GIS can integrate all services into a centralized geodatabase. The geodatabase serves as the critical hub of information, not only for asset management but for network model management.  This is critical in that GIS feeds other essential systems such as outage management (OMS) or distribution management (DMS) systems. With advanced mapping and editing tools, staff can quickly and efficiently update the asset and network information with data from engineering, construction and operations personnel.
This availability of highly accurate, up-to-date asset and network information proves critical in preparing for and responding to natural disasters, where minutes and miles count. Having a field technician or an executive sorting through mountains of maps that may be days, weeks or even months old, and likely inconsistent throughout the utility, is not acceptable when valuable infrastructure, employee safety and customer service is on the line.
Beyond the job description
These core features of enterprise GIS and the technological capabilities of many systems allow it to bring value-added functionality to disaster management. The ability to access up-to-the-minute GIS data on infrastructure, integrated with data on the disaster itself, allows utilities to be proactive in their preparations and mitigation efforts.
Restoration and customer relations
As hurricanes, fires, floods or other disaster events approach a city, threatening residential and commercial infrastructure, utilities are able to leverage their GIS technology to assess risk to critical infrastructure and prepare for damage related outages. Importantly, they are also able to better communicate with customers to help them prepare for extended outages and keep them informed on restoration progress. 
For example, by tracking the advance of a wildfire, a utility can determine what critical assets are in danger and prepare for shut-off and restoration needs. As the fire approaches buildings, service can be adjusted to avoid added risk from damaged assets, such as gas explosions. These shutoffs can be isolated to minimize the number of affected customers because of the accuracy of the database and advanced network tracing tools. Similarly, the utility knows where it can quickly restore service or how to reroute services around damaged assets in the meantime to keep services online. The ability to precisely control and track service status, in addition to supporting restoration crews, also gives utilities an important asset for communicating with customers.
This was a valuable resource during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when millions of customers were left without power. Many utilities provided outage maps on their websites, generally fed by a utility’s GIS. Some utilities in the Northeast even had these maps up and running before Sandy hit. This allowed their customers to prepare and plan for their expected days without service. Many utilities, however, never provided this information, and suffered the customer and public relations consequences. 
Supporting public safety response teams
Enterprise GIS can also be a tremendous asset to the greater community. Utilities can share data from their geodatabase with first responders, fire authorities, emergency management groups and public officials who assist in planning and response. With large scale disasters that require public safety crews to assess large numbers of threats, sharing accurate data on infrastructure and the most advanced mapping tools can be a great asset to help decision makers triage the most critical areas to deploy resources.
One example of this occurred in San Diego a few years ago when fires invaded the region. The public watched as first responders arrived on the scene to protect life and property, but behind the scenes they were able to create maps of essential infrastructure with utility information and the critical communication infrastructure.  As fires approached a primary communication tower, a hub for all the main cellular carriers in the area, emergency personnel knew damage had to be prevented. If the tower went down it would have been catastrophic, as the loss of cell phone service meant that emergency responders would have lost their primary communications network. By having the ability to spatially assess the full range of threats and risk levels, responders were able to redeploy and prevent the loss of the tower, essential to the ongoing disaster management effort.
Weather and GIS
As we explore new opportunities for GIS integration, utilities will have the ability to build disaster management into long-term business planning. Predictive outage management is possible by combining historic weather data into a utility’s enterprise-wide GIS. For example, developers at Schneider Electric are determining how common extreme weather is in a certain area to help determine what outages a utility can expect in various months, allowing for better preparedness. 
Many utilities already do this in the short term, using advanced forecasting tools to predict the scale of outages from an oncoming storm. Utilities use the information to plan ahead, ensuring enough crews are mobilized, and positioning them properly with equipment already set up and ready to respond to predicted damage. Not only does this assist in speeding up the restoration process but it also helps utilities ensure they are responding to weather events efficiently.
Mobile Access
One of the most important challenges for utilities right now is ensuring field crews can access the GIS geodatabase while out on a job, as well as record and update data safely and securely. This is even more important during disaster response, but can also be a greater challenge when communications infrastructure is damaged or overloaded. Direct connections to company servers are not always easily accessible when out on a call. 
A variety of solutions are in production to provide alternative ways for field crews to access and record data, including greater use of mobile devices and developing use of the cloud for uploads and downloads. Workers are now able to access and upload data wherever they can connect to a wireless Internet or mobile network, increasing the security of data and the efficiency of crews by reducing the number of truck rolls to report in and collect new data and assignments. A flexible field crew that can stay in the field and respond to new jobs as they come in is a huge asset during disaster response. 
Having confidence in the accuracy of infrastructure and network data, and being able to effectively communicate those data throughout the organization are core elements when providing essential services to the public. Information locked away in paper maps and in the minds of a generation of employees advancing steadily toward retirement age is not sufficient and not in line with the demands and realities of today’s utility industry. Utilities everywhere are putting significant effort into adopting solutions like GIS to ensure data are accurate, up-to-date and accessible at all times on an enterprise-wide scale.
As these systems become increasingly integrated, utilized and shared, utilities will innovate ways to use the advantages to meet business challenges. Of all the significant benefits enterprise GIS brings to the business of utilities, serving as a tool for disaster management is, hopefully, rarely needed. However, when billions of dollars in infrastructure, as well as the safety of crews and the general public are at stake, its ability to aid in effective and rapid response is critical.

Published Monday, May 20th, 2013

Written by Danny Petrecca

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