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Summer 2003
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FEMA Responds to the Tragic Event

Space Shuttle Columbia Debris Recovery Enhanced With GIS

Federal GISOn February 1, 2003, the City of Lufkin, Texas, was enjoying a quiet Saturday morning. At about 8:00 a.m., residents heard several loud explosions and witnessed debris from Space Shuttle Columbia rain down on the area. By that afternoon, local officials were setting up a regional command post at the Pitser Garrison Civic Center in Lufkin. At the same time, surrounding counties began establishing similar command posts to support emergency teams through this disaster.

By the next day, Sunday, hundreds of volunteers and law enforcement officers began searching eastern Texas for Space Shuttle Columbia debris. These field teams used both GPS and GIS technology to log and report debris material as it was retrieved in the field. Operating with local base data, they tracked the searched areas and plotted the debris on their maps. By that afternoon, 300 to 400 people from local, state, and federal agencies were using the civic center in Lufkin as their base of operations.

To organize and direct these local efforts, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) turned to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA, part of the new Department of Homeland Security, is responsible for responding to, planning for, recovering from, and mitigating against disasters in the United States. With 2,600 full-time employees and nearly 5,000 standby disaster assistance employees, FEMA was able to quickly staff and support this debris recovery.

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As part of the shuttle debris recovery effort, a three-dimensional view of a lake bed in eastern Texas using ArcScene was generated.

FEMA began immediately supporting this work from its headquarters in Washington, D.C., and at the regional level in Denton, Texas. After being deployed on Saturday evening, the first of FEMA's GIS staff arrived at the primary Disaster Field Office (DFO) in Lufkin on Sunday afternoon. While in transit, FEMA staff communicated with NASA and FEMA employees in the field to begin planning their support efforts.

"Once on site, we were able to assess the situation and develop a strategic plan for GIS and remote sensing support," states Ron Langhelm, interagency GIS coordinator for the shuttle recovery operation. "For example, the first GIS person at the DFO in Lufkin was a Texas Forest Service (TFS) forester. He was working diligently to meet the needs of everyone on site and had already requested assistance from another state agency. We soon met with representatives from TFS and agreed on the creation of an interagency GIS team to support the operation. FEMA assumed the lead, distributed the necessary hardware and GIS software, and began to provide staff for this recovery effort."

A GIS Data Set at the Core of the Operation

Both NASA and FEMA were interested in knowing where debris from Columbia was being found. Volunteers were taking calls from a multitude of locations, and their written reports were faxed to various Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs). In the field, reports and debris were given to anyone who appeared to be in authority. Dispatchers, searchers, and others recorded this field information but had no central repository for the data. Many of these reports were being tagged with latitude/longitude coordinates and could be easily mapped if compiled correctly. FEMA promptly determined that the most efficient way to manage debris data was to use GIS technology as the backbone of this operation.

All of the collected field data created two primary problems: there was no unique number assigned to items reported, and workers feared duplication of data might occur across the various EOCs. "We quickly decided to consolidate all the reports into one database and create a single point of data entry," states Langhelm. "This was initially accomplished by distributing the primary collection form and an empty Excel spreadsheet by e-mail to everyone we could identify as data collectors with instructions to e-mail the Excel spreadsheets to us daily."

To facilitate interagency data sharing and minimize duplication of effort, FEMA chose the Microsoft SQL Server and ArcSDE to warehouse the data. This software allowed authorized users to access data sets from remote locations, eliminating the need to manually share data in other ways. "We also agreed to run ArcGIS exclusively at the DFO to keep everyone working in the same capacity and prevent information from being lost in data transactions," explains Langhelm. "Once the data was compiled and assigned a unique number, we would allow data entry through a Web interface only and then aggressively work to eliminate the duplicate records."

As the interagency GIS staff compiled the debris database, a team from NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) arrived in Lufkin to assess the situation with the debris data. They were briefed on the current status as well as the direction being pursued. NASA offered to create the Web input interface and support the data documentation and validation. At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was retrieving all hazardous shuttle material and general debris from the field. As the team members retrieved this data, they recorded the item description and location information into their database.

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Close-up view of the shuttle debris recovery effort map showing combined air and ground search status.

It soon became clear that the GIS debris database and EPA database contained different information. EPA was collecting reports directly from local agencies as well as various call centers. Its data tracked only actual items retrieved, while FEMA's Shuttle Interagency Debris Database (SIDD) was designed to collect all reports, whatever the nature. After discussing the issues between their databases, FEMA and EPA personnel agreed to develop an overall solution. Reports would be collected in SIDD, verified that they were not duplicate records, and then passed to the EPA database. EPA would then investigate and retrieve the items and pass the debris recovery information back to the SIDD server. The interagency GIS team would then use this data to create the products required for the management of the incident including the point locations that had been vital in developing the debris line, search buffer, and search grid coverages.

Mapping the Incident

Under FEMA's management, the interagency GIS team then began supporting the mapping operations in Texas. As the search efforts focused on the recovery of debris, the incident managers made plans to minimize GIS support at the field camps and consolidate all strategic mapping at DFO. During the previous two weeks, federal, state, local, and volunteer staff had provided GIS services at several field sites to support NASA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and local government groups. In the transition from multiple field centers to DFO, these volunteers brought with them the hardware, software, and data required to produce maps. In this transition, the field GIS teams shut down, and future maps were developed at DFO.

Several factors led to the GIS consolidation in Lufkin. Because of the quantity of field sites and their broad distribution, maintaining the hardware, software, and staffing would be very difficult. A management team for GIS resources would require a roving technical support team to keep everything running smoothly and would be difficult to implement on the fly. Both DFO and field camps would be pulling staff from the same resources and, as a result, be in competition for resources.

At DFO, specific maps were developed to support the managers of the air and ground search teams. "Early on, the search area was divided into grids, and all search efforts would continue to use this same system. We decided to develop field maps specifically for both search types and tailor them to meet each specific need," states Langhelm. A few days into the process, DFO was printing more than 1,000 maps per day. Production of the field maps was automated using Visual Basic to accommodate the large volume. The air and ground maps varied in size, layout, and content, but both types of maps utilized the search grid and the most current imagery available as the base layer.

With the daily production processes in place, the interagency GIS team continued to support dynamic requests for GIS products, from nationwide debris maps to large-scale site maps of specific debris themes, which it provided to NASA management, astronaut corps, FEMA, field camps, state offices, TFS, EPA, FBI, and others.

GIS in a Chaotic Environment

Working in a disaster debris recovery setting presents many unique challenges. For this recovery effort, FEMA brought together a diverse group of individuals from very different professional backgrounds. "In this industry, personalities come together to support a community-type work environment that is extremely supportive during times of tragedy," says Langhelm. "Some of the technical hurdles we addressed revolved around standard naming conventions and layouts. One of the little things that helped was the ability to store metadata within the MXD file that could be shared throughout this community." With this information, specific methodologies required to update and maintain products were documented within the project.

More than 80 people have staffed the interagency GIS operation in Lufkin since February 2003. Of that total, nine staff members have been from FEMA with the remaining staff coming from the Bureau of Land Management, NASA, National Park Service, Texas Forest Service, Texas Natural Resources Information System (a division of the Texas Water Development Board), U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and U.S. Forest Service, as well as Esri Professional Services.

GIS and those using this technology proved a valuable resource to manage this crisis. "Without this technology, the debris would likely have been plotted on highway maps with pushpins," says Langhelm. "Analysis of the debris, planning for the search efforts, and tracking of progress would just not have been possible." The data collected on this project will be valuable to FEMA and NASA even after this crisis has ended. As items are identified and cataloged, researchers and analysts will continue to have the capability to identify from where they were retrieved. This information will assist with the process of identifying exactly what happened and help FEMA and NASA respond to other emergencies in the future.

For more information about this article, please contact Ron Langhelm, FEMA (tel.: 425-487-4642, e-mail:

Also see Dozens of Agencies Work Together to Map Shuttle Debris.

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