ArcNews Online

Winter 2001/2002
[an error occurred while processing this directive]

E-mail to a Friend
Creating Safer Communities and a Better World

GIS and Homeland Security

The recent terrorist attacks on U.S. soil have forever changed how our nation addresses the issue of providing for the safety and security of its citizens, communities, and assets. Homeland security is now at the forefront of issues in the United States, and GIS will play a vital role in integrating information, organizations, and people in this critical effort.

 click to see enlargement
With GIS tools, lives, property, and critical infrastructure at high risk from potential attack or other emergency are much easier to identify. (Data courtesy of TNRIS.)

Homeland security entails understanding all of the systems, infrastructure, organizations, and vital interactions that contribute to our communities, our livelihoods, and, ultimately, our safety. Embarking on a new level of homeland security means rethinking policies and planning, allocation of resources, and partnership strategies among federal, state, local, and private sectors. Part of that rethinking means viewing homeland security at the global and national level as something that encapsulates natural disasters, man-made catastrophes, and terrorism.

Today, terrorism has never been a greater threat to our national security. Traditional threats to security were state-based and were aimed at U.S. forces and allies overseas. But with weapons of mass destruction, extremist group terrorism, attacks on information infrastructures, and other possibilities, threats may now involve civilians and nonmilitary targets.

For federal, state, and local government officials and private Businesses and nonprofit organizations of all sizes in multiple industries, this requires a new, comprehensive approach involving people, processes, and technology to effectively and rapidly plan and respond to new emergencies and threats to our communities. As demonstrated by recent events, GIS is the technology that will be crucial to this security effort.

"GIS is critical to homeland security because it enables integration of all types of information," says Lew Nelson, law enforcement solutions manager, Esri. "Utilities, law enforcement, fire, health, building and safety--data from all of these entities and more can be integrated using GIS. This type of data sharing, analysis, and graphic representation speeds understanding of an event and improves the decision making process at all levels of response. You just can't do this with other technologies. Because of security and proprietary issues, a great deal of data is sitting in stovepipes, stored in isolated silos that are useless unless they can be accessed in an emergency. GIS provides the tools for secure access to these data sets in the event of a local, regional, or national emergency. Most important, GIS is a powerful tool for integrating people, organizations, and their efforts. A good homeland security GIS is really an excellent example of societal GIS."

click to see enlargement
Homeland security programs begin with strategic and tactical planning to locate and identify potential emergency management problems and, using GIS, pinpointing these hazards and evaluating the consequences of potential attacks, emergencies, or disasters.

For many years and in many situations, GIS has been used to help government and Business entities meet the challenges of major emergencies. Fire, police, public works, building and safety, water, engineering, utilities, telecommunications, and every other discipline have long recognized the utility of GIS in emergency response and have discovered how traditional tasks can be performed more efficiently and how previously impractical or seemingly impossible tasks can be easily addressed.

Emergency management applications include:

  • Managing and locating resources.
  • Planning (ability to develop analysis-based plans).
  • Visual decision support.

A few of the benefits of using GIS include:

  • Fast response capabilities.
  • Saving time.
  • Fast access to information.
  • Integrated layers of information.
  • Strong analytic capabilities.
  • Powerful visualization.

Managing the Homeland Security Effort with GIS

While GIS was an important and integrative technology used in response, rescue, and recovery efforts in New York City and Washington, D.C., these were predominantly focused on responding to a situation that had already occurred. GIS is equally important in assessment planning activities and managing activities that people are referring to as homeland security.

screen shot identifying obvious and less obvious hazards; click to see enlargement
Homeland security programs can identify obvious hazards as well as evaluate less obvious hazards such as critical resources, critical infrastructure, and other potential hazards or targets. The hazard data can be viewed with other map data to develop a risk assessment.

Homeland security is focused on three primary objectives: protecting life, property, and critical infrastructure. Technology and information are crucial in this effort. Homeland security efforts require a multitude of critical tasks that incorporate both short-range and long-range planning efforts including risk assessment, mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.

With localized GIS data creation, management, and analysis, users can build highly accurate, detailed geodatabases that can be fully integrated, using ArcIMS technology, into a sharable, distributed network at a national scale in the case of an emergency.

"Our goal is to work with users in a number of industries to build information at the local level and, in the event of an emergency, enable these users to plug into a virtual network to use the richest possible data resources via the Internet and other sources to respond to and manage the event," says Nelson. "Businesses such as electric utilities, transportation, and health organizations may build their own databases that are proprietary, yet, when the need arises, the information can be accessed for use by rescue, law enforcement, fire, and other government officials. This is a key component to the vision we have for GIS and its place in homeland security and society."

 risk assessment; click to see enlargement

In the context of homeland security, GIS can be used to develop a community's emergency response plan by identifying the location of schools, medical centers, staging areas, and evacuation routes. Analysis can identify transportation choke points near bridges or overpasses. During an emergency, GIS can be used to route response vehicles and quickly identify critical infrastructures such as water storage/treatment facilities, communication networks, electric generation facilities, and refineries.

GIS Applications in Emergency Management

Emergencies can impact all or any number of government departments or agencies and can escalate from local to national in scope. There are common elements of emergency management planning that are also critical to homeland security. GIS is a powerful tool in each of these processes in that it provides critical information, intuitively displayed, for mission-critical decision support for key applications such as the following:

Risk Assessment and Planning--Homeland security programs begin with understanding the problem. This involves strategic and tactical planning to locate and identify potential emergency management problems and, using GIS, pinpointing these hazards and evaluating the consequences of potential attacks, emergencies, or disasters. They can identify obvious hazards (chemical storage, nuclear plants, flood zones, earthquake faults) as well as evaluate less obvious hazards such as critical resources (forests, water, food supplies), critical infrastructure (utilities, telecommunications, water lines), and other potential hazards or targets. The hazard data can be viewed with other map data (population density, streets, pipelines, power lines, etc.) to develop a risk assessment. With GIS tools, lives, property, and critical infrastructure at high risk from potential attack or other emergency are much easier to identify.

diagram of a GIS-based Homeland Security

Mitigation--Once the risk assessment has been completed, GIS analysis can easily determine adjoining structures, utilities, and population areas to the possible hazard. It can identify facilities that require reinforced construction or relocation. Other mitigation efforts may target hazardous material storage, establishing security buffers around high-risk structures or environmental health monitoring. Mitigation involves understanding potential hazards (human life, property, infrastructure, environmental, etc.) at risk from these emergencies and targeting them for protective and/or preventive action. The goal is to take information and employ mitigation efforts to prevent or reduce the harmful effects of an event.

Preparedness--This includes activities that prepare emergency workers for actual emergencies. These activities include contingency planning, model building, and training. GIS can be used to answer such questions in a given emergency as the following:

  • Where should first responder teams be staged to improve response time and capability?
  • Where should fire stations be located if a five-minute response time is expected?
  • How many paramedic units or ambulances are required, and where should they be staged?
  • What are the best potential evacuation routes?
  • Where are medical and public health assets?
  • Will the road networks handle the evacuation or rescue traffic?
  • What facilities will provide evacuation shelters?
  • What critical assets have I lost?
  • What quantity of supplies, bed space, etc., will be required at shelters based on expected evacuees?

Response--These are the critical activities occurring immediately following a terrorist event, emergency, or disaster. These activities are designed to provide emergency assistance for victims (for example, search and rescue, emergency shelter, medical care, mass feeding). Emergency workers seek to stabilize the situation and reduce the probability of secondary damage (for example, shutting off contaminated water supply sources, cordoning off affected areas to prevent further injury, looting, or other problems) as well as to speed recovery operations (for example, damage assessment). GIS is critical to understanding the scope, complexity, and severity of the emergency as well as available assets and those lost or no longer available. The full range of GIS capability is utilized in assigning rescue personnel and equipment, placing evacuation and staging areas, organizing medical support, monitoring environmental problems (toxic plumes, etc.), establishing evacuation routes, providing logistical support, establishing perimeters, determining lost services (electrical, phone, water), and hundreds of other uses.

diagram of a national GIS for homeland security

Recovery--Recovery efforts begin when the emergency (immediate threat to life, property, and critical infrastructure) is over. Recovery efforts are often in two phases: short term and long term.

  • Short-Term Recovery--A GIS can work in concert with GPS to locate each damaged facility, identify the type and amount of damage, and begin to establish priorities for action (triage). Laptop or handheld computers can update the primary database from remote locations through a variety of methods. Emergency distribution center supplies (medical, food, water, clothing, etc.) can be assigned with appropriate amounts to shelters based on population displacement and type of damage in each area. GIS can display the number of shelters needed and where they should be located for reasonable access. The immediate recovery efforts can be visually displayed and quickly updated until short-term recovery is complete. This "visual status map" can be accessed and viewed from remote locations by critical decision makers. This is particularly helpful for large emergencies or disasters where multiple efforts are ongoing at several different locations.
  • Long-Term Recovery--Long-term recovery means restoring all services to normal or better. Long-term recovery (replacement of homes, water systems, streets, hospitals, bridges, schools, etc.) can take several years. Long-term plans and progress can be displayed and tracked utilizing a GIS. Prioritization for major restoration investments can be made with the assistance of GIS. And as long-term restoration is completed, it can be identified and visually tracked. Accounting for disaster costs can be complicated. As funds are allocated for repairs, accounting information can be recorded and linked to each location. As evidenced by recent events, long-term recovery costs can be in the billions of dollars for large disasters. Accounting for how and where funds are allocated is a demanding but necessary task.

Who Is a Part of Homeland Security?

Every government agency, Business, private utility, and institution has data that is invaluable to homeland security efforts. Having this data available in an emergency saves time and resources that can best be employed in saving lives and property. No response agency wants to have to waste critical time constructing a data set and a GIS after an event has taken place--the key is preparing before the crisis occurs.

For more information, contact Russ Johnson, Esri public safety solutions manager (tel.: 909-793-2853, ext. 1-1836; e-mail: or Lew Nelson, Esri law enforcement solutions manager (tel.: 909-793-2853, ext. 1-1690; e-mail: or visit

Contact Us | Privacy | Legal | Site Map