Maps and Emergency Management: preparation, prevention, response, mitigation and recovery

April 26, 2023

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“How are we this morning,” asks the campus safety officer when he sees me and my wife in sleeping bags on the sofas. He is opening up Owens Hall for the day. “Pretty rough,” I answer. “We evacuated at three this morning.”

I have mapped and fought many wildland fires, but that was the first one from which I had ever fled. Fortunately, our home was safe, but the maps that were made later made us realize just how close we were to destruction. Many of our neighbors were not so fortunate.

Emergency management obviously has a strong geospatial component. In this article, we’ll explore how geopatial technology is used in all phases of emergency management: preparation, prevention, response, mitigation and recovery. Through my various careers, I have been involved with all of these phases in different roles.

The scope of emergencies varies vastly on both temporal and spatial scales. There can be a hurricane that lasts for weeks and covers thousands of square miles or an earthquake that occurs in seconds. If we were to explore every type, this would be an entire book (in fact, there are many out there), so we’ll focus on a few case studies.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The first phase is preparation and, thus, prevention, but the phases are circular, not linear; lessons learned from response and recovery can lead to more effective preparation and prevention. My community is in the wildland-urban interface, though urban is a very broad term. The Oregon Department of Forestry has been conducting property-by-property surveys for years using paper, then ArcPad, and moving on to Collector and other field apps to assess WUI hazards. The landowner is given a list of potential hazards on the properties.

Because wildfires are becoming more frequent and larger, and the fire season is becoming longer, this is a critical issue. Homes, lives and property are lost, and the cost is enormous. Again, this crosses many scales. Data sets and maps have been published from the county level to the national level. The formats range from PDF files to AGOL maps to downloadable data.

What do we do when it happens?

Hurricanes are also becoming more frequent. Because they are so large and travel such vast distances, they can be predicted — to a certain degree. In 2005, Katrina slammed right into the city of New Orleans with unexpected force and speed. The devastation was immense.

Serendipitously, the National Park Service had just finalized a data model for mapping cultural resources, but it had yet to be widely deployed and vetted in the field. The details are too complex to discuss here, but the various attributes included structure type, condition, whether it was in its original location and many others.

With a few modifications, this data model was deployed on any kind of GPS that could run ArcPad, and for units like Garmins, paper forms (rite-in-the-rain, of course) were distributed across the thousands of people that were deployed from local, state and federal agencies, as well as the Red Cross and other volunteer organizations. Although originally designed for archaeological sites and historic buildings, it proved to be the perfect tool for mapping all of the structural damage in the city.

Geospatial technology is an incredibly valuable tool in response and resource allocation. Often in a major disaster, streets are flooded, collapsed buildings cover the streets with rubble, whole neighborhoods are burned, and the landscape is unrecognizable. Here in the United States, we have robust data sets that are field-ready. In other parts of the world, that isn’t the case.

Enter OpenStreetMap. Thanks to thousands of volunteers, roads and facilities in remote areas all over the world have been mapped, and this has served disaster responders well in both initial response and post-crisis humanitarian efforts to deliver food, water and shelter. The basic tools of OSM have been used effectively for years, but recently a new tool was developed and deployed: Disaster Ninja.

Disaster Ninja takes the raw data from OSM and packages it in ready-to-use layers with symbology and attributes. It also offers analysis capabilities using not only OSM data but external data as well, such as population density, building density and even weather data. These analyses help prioritize response areas both in terms of need and accessibility.

Since its beginning in 2006, OSM has been deployed on almost every major disaster across the globe, including Katrina, the Haiti earthquake, and the Japanese tsunami. Built and released in 2019, Disaster Ninja has been used in hurricanes, cyclones, earthquakes and COVID, to name but a few.

Success comes from structure.

Every nation and NGO has a different system for emergency response. Obviously, there is a tremendous amount of chaos during any incident, and especially those that occur without warning. In the U.S., nearly every civilian agency uses the Incident Command System.

Developed cooperatively by many agencies, the ICS is “a management system designed to enable effective and efficient …. incident management by integrating …. facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures, and communications operating within a common organizational structure.”

The ICS is scalable, so it can be used from a single tree set on fire by lightning to a multi-state hurricane. Roles are clearly defined, as is the reporting structure. The GIS specialist or team reports to the Situation Unit Leader, whose duty, among many others, is to help the team prioritize the many mapping needs. The SITL reports to the chief of the Planning Unit, who is responsible to the Incident Commander.

Numerous agencies in other nations, including Great Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Brazil, have adopted similar models. The United Nations has recognized the effectiveness of the ICS and has recommended it as an international standard.

Time to take a breath? Not at all.

Once the rumbling has stopped, the fire is out or the tornado has passed, the disaster is far from over. Homes and lives have been lost, and those that haven’t need to be saved as quickly as possible. The next step in disaster response is damage assessment.

Several years ago, I took an exceptional multi-day training from the National Alliance for Public Safety GIS Foundation. Their mission is “to improve the safety, resilience, and well-being of our communities and to improve government and non-governmental organization responses to chronic and emergent public safety threats and incidents.

One of the modules was on damage assessment. The three stages are:

  1. Crawl. Find out where the damage is using whatever resources are at hand — GIS data, aerial photography, paper maps, local knowledge, etc.
  2. Walk. Start collecting data using mobile GIS and other methods.
  3. RUN! Integrate all of the field data so it can be used for further assessments and analysis, i.e., make a big picture.

There are links to examples of all of these, as well as to numerous data sets, web maps, feature services and a template for building damage assessment. Esri also has an industry site with several case studies, such as crowdsourcing damage from massive floods in Oklahoma using Survey123, the results of which were displayed in real-time on a dashboard at the Oklahoma Office of Emergency Management.

Rebuild or Abandon?

Damage recovery and restoration is not an incident; it is a process that can take years. Debris must be removed, insurance claims filed, levees rebuilt and so on. The survivors need shelter, water and food. This is by far the longest phase of the disaster response cycle.

An Esri partner, Crisis Track, has developed a suite of software to assist in these endeavors. They offer consulting as well, on all phases of emergency response, including preparation, FEMA paperwork and response, and their apps integrate directly with ArcGIS.

Survivors, Not Victims

In emergency and disaster response, there is a huge potential for error given the chaos involved, but a narrow margin for error. The slightest mistake could result in loss of lives and property, both for the victims and responders. Having been on numerous incidents, both as a responder and a victim, I know first-hand that it is mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting, which clouds the brain. Geospatial technology has proven to lighten the workload in time and, thus, energy spent.

The Oklahoma crowdsourcing example mentioned above is not only about data collection but empowerment. Nearly everyone is going to be affected by some kind of disaster, if not personally then by association. Crowdsourcing, mobile GIS and volunteering with an aid organization all are ways to turn victims into survivors.

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