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Mobile GIS Shrinks Information Gap for Wildfire Decision Makers

GIS also enabled the task force agencies to share geospatial data and view the potential fire hazards that stretched across the mountains of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. Using this information, they drafted coordinated plans to share resources and work together to prevent extensive fire damage and develop fire suppression priorities throughout the area. Most important, GIS supported critical decision making beginning with the first fire that broke out in fall 2003.

Mobile GIS at the Front Line

As a data collection tool, mobile GIS contributed significantly to the development of task force data. However, the technology began revealing its potential uses at the front lines of a blaze. To fully appreciate the role mobile GIS plays in this capacity, the command structure at the site of the California wildfires must be understood.

Shortly after the fires began, the task force established an Incident Command Center near the city of San Bernardino at the closed Norton Air Force Base. As one of the primary command posts, it served as a camp for firefighters and a staging area for supplies and vehicles. It was also one of the key areas where GIS was set up. While the fire was being fought, data on its status and location, as well as damage assessments from field sources, aerial reconnaissance, and satellite imagery, was continuously fed into the GIS.

Numerous geospatial organizations offered assistance during the fires. Esri, various agencies, and contractors sent personnel and software to help with mapping and analysis tasks carried on at the command centers. Trimble provided five GeoExplorer XT handheld mapping devices for use by mobile GIS crews in the field.

Incident management teams used GIS to assist in planning daily attacks on the fires. They determined where to assign firefighting resources, which structures were threatened, and where to send crews and supplies. Strategies were devised and revised every 12 hours. Maps detailing the plans were printed from the GIS and provided to fire supervisors who were heading into the field to implement the incident action plan.

Fire supervisors employed tactics designed to carry out command center strategies. Of course, crews often discovered the situation in the field had changed considerably since plans had been drawn up. Changing tactics and making on-the-spot decisions were the responsibilities of the division chiefs and branch directors in the field with approval from the fire operations chief. These tactical decisions underlined the need for highly trained fire professionals who are equipped with the best available information so they can make intelligent decisions.

As part of a mobile GIS trial, periodically some fire supervisors were provided with handheld devices loaded with maps of their area of responsibility. These fire supervisors were paired with helicopters that also carried mobile GIS devices. The helicopter's mission was to fly the edge of a specific fire, record its perimeter coordinates with the GPS-enabled unit, and transmit the data via wireless link directly to the fire supervisor's mobile GIS. The supervisor could see real-time fire perimeter coordinates displayed on the map of area of responsibility.

For the first time, fire supervisors had real-time access to information on the size, status, and behavior information on live wildfires for the portion of the fire for which they were responsible as well as adjacent areas. By looking at the screen, a supervisor could see if segments of the blaze that were not visible were heading toward homes, critical infrastructure, or other important assets. In these trials, the fire supervisor had the best information available on which to base tactical decisions.

The benefits didn't stop there. Fire supervisors were able to enter notes on-screen on the map that showed what had been accomplished and which tactics were currently deployed in the field. This information was reported back and uploaded to the primary GIS database so that current data was available for the next planning cycle.

Mobile GIS use in the 2003 wildfires demonstrated how the timeliness of fire information can be improved and used by fire supervisors in the field and personnel at incident command posts. Because fire supervisors received perimeter updates within seconds rather than hours, planning was enhanced by accurate information acquisition and distribution at all levels of the incident management operation.

Accurate information was more quickly supplied to anxious evacuees using mobile GIS. In several instances, helicopters recorded locations and degree of damage to neighborhoods and communities. This data was overlaid on property maps within GIS so that evacuated property owners could be told what to expect when they returned home. Although the news was often grim, it helped mitigate uncertainty and fear.

Expanding Benefits to All Emergencies

As this article was being prepared, the 2004 fire season was heating up. The task force was coordinating with Esri, Trimble, and others to improve mobile GIS use based on the experiences of the previous year. Studies are underway to establish a viable communications link between the handheld units in the field and the GIS at the command centers that could further diminish the information lag time between the field crews and the decision makers at dispatch centers, emergency operations centers, and Incident Command Posts. Plans are already in the works to equip more helicopters and crews with handheld GIS devices.

Looking at the bigger emergency response picture, the Mountain Area Safety Taskforce also plans to create Web-based links between its GIS and the Southern California Operations Center in Riverside. This center will become the Multi-Agency Command Center (MAC) and provide multiagency coordination in the event of a major disaster such as an earthquake or other complex emergency.

The ultimate goal in California is to put the most accurate information available into the hands of decision makers at the site of any disaster. This information needs to be provided in a timely and intuitive manner. Mobile GIS is a technology that can meet these demanding requirements.

About the Authors

Russ Johnson, public safety industry manager for Esri in Redlands, California, may be reached at Ron Bisio, the Americas marketing manager for Trimble Navigation in Westminster, Colorado, may be contacted at

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