GIS Sets the Stage for Effective Flood Response in San Bernardino County

July 21, 2016

By Barbara Leigh Shields, Esri Writer


The El Niño conditions warming the Pacific Ocean threatened to drench California communities, compelling agencies to modernize flood management technologies. The County of San Bernardino Department of Public Works recently replaced its slow, manual processes and paper records with Esri technology. The geographic information system (GIS) software improves location-based analysis, real-time situational awareness, and incident response.

County flood control crews sandbag a location to prevent further flooding of private property

 The largest county in the United States, San Bernardino County has diverse geography ranging from a steep mountain range to the vast expanse of the Mojave Desert. A storm rolling through the region can create dangerous flash floods. The GIS team designed a flood management solution to collect and integrate pertinent data and quickly create up-to-date, data-rich applications in Esri Operations Dashboard for ArcGIS and Collector for ArcGIS. GIS provides GIS Sets the Stage for Effective Flood Response in San Bernardino County By Barbara Leigh Shields, Esri Writer location information to managers in the Department Operations Center (DOC) and responders in the field via any type of mobile device.

  “Esri GIS technology quickly gets essential information to the DOC to improve flood response,” said Ryan Hunsicker, GIS manager. “The Esri platform helps us manage dispatch activities and provides near real-time maps showing [the] positions of our field staff along with the locations of any concern that they encounter along their storm patrol routes.”

  The district uses the Esri ArcGIS Online platform and Operations Dashboard tools to plan response, show flood data on a live map, and disseminate critical information between the DOC and field responders. GIS processes county and field data to show incident information. The county’s GIS team uses Collector to create data collection apps for people working in the field and a dashboardfor managers at the DOC, who review, assess, and direct field operations. 

During a flood, district managers can rely on GIS to see critical data such as flood levels, water flow blockages caused by debris, and the impact on infrastructure. Whenever an incident occurs, all activity is projected from an Operations Dashboard app onto a big screen in the DOC. With updates at 30-second intervals, the map shows the flood control basin’s remaining water capacity. It also shows field observations, provided by several roaming assessment teams, that describe conditions that pose a danger to flood control facilities. 

GIS also shows, in near real time, the location and status of response vehicles and road closures. Map symbols indicate the severity of conditions that pose a threat to life or property. Furthermore, GIS displays information disseminated by other agencies such as San Bernardino County Fire and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

When it starts to rain heavily, the public works department wants eyes on the ground. It dispatches storm patrol teams to observe and report damaged facilities, eroding channels, and basin water levels. The teams follow designated routes and log their observations. Predetermined storm patrol assignments are mapped in GIS to show the route each storm patrol team is to drive. Dashed lines indicate a storm route that is potentially hazardous and is only to be driven during daylight hours. These routes may include nonpublic and flood-control roads not found on a conventional map. 

“We didn’t have a way to collect or tabulate data very effectively or disseminate it to the DOC,” Annesley Ignatius, deputy director of public works, explained. “Although the flood patrol crews would be contacted every hour to provide their observations, we couldn’t get their complete observations and effectively compile it. Rather, we had to wait for them to turn in their logs at the end of their shifts, as much as 12 hours later. Now, the mobile app instantly delivers that data from the field location to the DOC.”

The DOC Operations Dashboard application shows detailed information about a concern that was recorded along a designated storm patrol route.

“Esri tools give us the ability to digitally collect data, analyze it in the DOC, and act on it in the field,” Ignatius continued. “GIS shows us what is actually happening in the field in real time. Furthermore, field data is available for future use.” Using ArcGIS Online and Collector for ArcGIS, the GIS team built a web app for recording observations. It sends field data to the GIS platform for inclusion on the command center map. Field crews access the app from their county-issued tablets and drive the map’s prescribed route. Stopping at indicated points, staff complete the observation for eachpoint as described by the map’s pop-up window. 

Flooding incidents are a serious threat to life and property, and the county food control district is committed to preventing them.

“Each stop has multiple observations, and we want to record each operation at the same point throughout the shifts,” Hunsicker said. “Collector for ArcGIS made it very easy to design the app. Once we decided on the questions to ask at each of the stops for patrol crews, I put them into the app template. The app is simple to use and captures the data we want and with fewer errors.“ 

For each stop, the app displays a set of yes-or-no questions about obstruction, flooding, flow backup, rain intensity, and so forth. If the patrol crew members answer yes to any item, they take a photo depicting the problem and write comments about it in the app’s note box. The crew can also stop at unassigned points and report incidents such as a felled tree blocking a road. The app geotags the log entry and returns the information to the platform.

An outlet of a flood control facility has overflowed and pours mud and water onto city streets.

  At the DOC, incoming information is noted in the corner of the map. The team sends a note back to the patrol crew confirming that the information was received. Managers decide what response to take and dispatch a work order, such as, “Send a bulldozer to this location to clean up this debris.”

  Once the work crew has completed a task, that information is input into the app and the task is denoted on the map as being complete. Documentation of the task—from observation to assignment to completion—ensures that incident response is prompt. 

ArcGIS Online archives all incident data related to a flood. The public works management team can use a time slider to review incident data and see how the sequence of events unfolded, which can then help staff learn how to manage incidents more effectively and mitigate damage in areas that are prone to flooding.

Collector for ArcGIS allows the storm patrol to log an observation at a predefined storm patrol stop location.

  The department of public works is very optimistic that the Collector and Operations Dashboard apps—working together with the flood control district’s GIS data, policies, and procedures—will streamline the process of ensuring the safety of San Bernardino County residents from floodwater. With the real-time capabilities of the Esri ArcGIS platform, managers at the DOC immediately have the information they need to make decisions on how to react to and mitigate floods that occur within the county.