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A Common Vision for Homeland Security

Homeland security is a proactive approach for preventing terrorist attacks, especially attacks made by non-state actors. These attacks, designed to disrupt society and incite fear, may be made to get attention for a cause or exact political concessions. Homeland security focuses on protecting lives, property, and critical infrastructure.

Hazardous displayed and linked to related data.
The data sharing, analysis, and graphic representation available through enterprise GIS speeds understanding of events and improves decision making.

Although concerns about terrorist attacks against specific areas of society, such as agricultural, public health, and transportation, are not new, putting these concerns in the context of a coordinated effort to protect all domestic assets has developed as a result of the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11.

Implementing homeland security necessitates understanding the systems, infrastructure, organizations, and vital interactions necessary for the well being of communities. GIS is critical to this effort because it integrates all types of information and relates that information spatially. The data sharing, analysis, and graphic representation available through enterprise GIS speeds understanding of events and improves decision making. These strengths make GIS the best backbone technology for homeland security.

Emergency managers have recognized this and many now use GIS to enhance the emergency management planning cycle, a comprehensive approach for dealing with disasters, both natural and man-made. See the accompanying article, "Supersizing Emergency Management with GIS," for more information on homeland security applications of emergency management planning that use GIS.

The Challenges of Homeland Security

For government leaders used to thinking of security in terms protection against conventional attacks by other nations and threats to United States forces and allies overseas, the shift to homeland security will call for some adjustment. Domestic preparedness is both information intensive and multi-jurisdictional.

Many government agencies and other organizations have been creating and maintaining spatial data for decades, making the United States the most geodata rich country in the world. However, much of this data is trapped in information silos isolated within departments and organizations. To implement homeland security without costly replication of data will require the type of data integration provided by GIS as well as agreements that inventory and allow access to data by many jurisdictions in a controlled manner.

The unpredictability of terrorist acts makes homeland security challenging in ways that typical emergency management is not. Natural disasters, and some emergencies, can be predicted to some degree. The risks and hazards presented by natural disasters have been studied. Emergency managers learn from the experiences of others in dealing with similar threats and base strategies for planning, mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery on this knowledge.

In contrast, terrorist events are random and somewhat unique. The timing and targets are relatively unpredictable. Although some obvious targets can be identified, locking down all the targets attractive to terrorists for an unspecified time period is generally not feasible. After an initial strike, communication from or information about the terrorist organization responsible may narrow the field of targets. However, without proactive work in the areas of mitigation, planning, and response, even more specific information will probably not prevent, or at least limit, additional strikes.

Homeland Means Geography

Homeland describes a place and geography is the definition of place. To effectively address threats to homeland security requires understanding many types of geography--physical, natural, cultural, social, and economic. Knowledge of all these geographies is prerequisite for homeland security. For example, dams, airports, and bridges--all part of the built environment or cultural geography--are components of a community's infrastructure. Understanding this geography is critical to the process of identifying vulnerabilities and formulating mitigation and preparedness measures.

GIS is by far the best technology for this task. In the process of identifying these critical spatial features, GIS helps uncover chokepoints. A chokepoint is a place where several types of critical infrastructure converge. For example, a bridge could carry power and telecommunication lines as well as providing the only egress for a populated area. An event at a chokepoint, such as an explosion on that bridge, would have multiple effects.

Once chokepoints have been identified, mitigation can be devised and applied. Mitigation can be a policy, such as limiting access to an area, or physical action, such as posting armed guards, or a change in operational procedures, such as limiting traffic. Mitigation can also mean making changes that eliminate a chokepoint. Using the bridge example, mitigation in this case could mean building another bridge.

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