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Summer 2003
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GIS Provides Common Language for Recovery

Dozens of Agencies Work Together to Map Shuttle Debris

Immediately following the Columbia space shuttle tragedy on February 1, 2003, dozens of agencies quickly came together to collaborate in the investigation of what exactly happened, and GIS was a framework for these agencies to cooperate and track the tens of thousands of debris strewn across several states. While Esri provided GIS software and professional services, dozens of other agencies worked using GIS tools on a daily basis.

Spearheaded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) (see "Space Shuttle Columbia Debris Recovery Enhanced With GIS"), the U.S. Forest Service, the Texas Forest Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), dozens of other agencies also came together just hours after the tragedy to begin the difficult job of piecing together the clues that could help in answering what happened and why.

FEMA established an information technology (IT) base at the Joint Information Center in Lufkin, Texas, using the Microsoft SQL Server database. This centralized command center was also the focal point for managing post-event data collection using ArcInfo, ArcSDE, and ArcIMS.

"We learned a lot from the events of New York City, and we knew that standardization was vital," says John J. Perry, chief of the Technical Services Branch/Emergency Support Function #5, FEMA. "We chose Esri's ArcGIS 8.2 as our standard, and this helped tremendously because so many agencies were involved. We all used the same software and version. This cut down on confusion and streamlined our map production process."

Emergency operation centers were set up throughout Texas, Louisiana, and other states, each providing a localized data collection point. The web of centers began mapping debris quickly, and through hard work and cooperation, a standardized, interconnected ArcGIS system was soon established.

Many other agencies volunteered their GIS services as well. For instance, Stephen F. Austin State University was initially involved and provided GIS mapping. "As soon as the event took place, we contacted the emergency center, and within a couple hours we were producing maps where shuttle debris was located," says Susan Henderson, research associate, Forest Resources Institute, Stephen F. Austin State University.

Under the EPA's direction, field-workers—volunteers, firefighters, law enforcement personnel, public safety officials, department of transportation officials, and many others—collected debris and data and pinpointed locations using GIS. This information was brought back to the command centers and analyzed to predict possible locations of undiscovered debris. Each command center uploaded its map and tabular information to central command, where large-scale operational strategies and tactics were orchestrated. EPA also developed an ArcIMS Intranet application that allowed users to create debris location maps.

EPA Region 6 in conjunction with Esri Business Partner Weston Solutions (West Chester, Pennsylvania) developed a mobile application for use in the shuttle debris recovery efforts. "This application was combined with components of ArcIMS and Microsoft .NET software for ease of utilization among the various agencies involved in the recovery effort," says Don Smith, EPA. "EPA personnel used Compaq iPAQ as the field instrument for collecting photo documentation, GPS attributes, and item descriptions. The deployment of this combined application saved significant time and man-hours and reduced errors that are typical of similar paper-based systems."

The many different agencies each used GIS not only for the common purpose of mapping debris but also for independent responsibilities as well. NASA could use the data for investigation purposes. EPA could locate potential health hazards such as toxic debris. The U.S. Forest Service could determine areas of thick forests to help allocate proper recovery resources.

The Texas Natural Resources Information System spurred major integration efforts as well. Digital and paper map data, GPS data from various centers, and Excel spreadsheets from Louisiana were input into the ArcSDE database, providing an enterprise environment for end users.

"The Texas Forest Service contacted us and asked us for some help," says Chris Williams, database administrator, Texas Natural Resources Information System. "We created a geodatabase layer in ArcSDE and established ArcGIS as the main mapping platform, and it just progressed from there. Several different entities built maps, but they all worked using the same GIS."

For more information, contact Pat Cummens, Esri (tel.: 909-793-2853, ext. 1-1972; e-mail:

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