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Winter 2006/2007
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Homeland Security GIS Summit Focuses on Information Sharing

GIS Technology Builds a Common Language for Emergency Preparedness

  Ron Langhelm
During the Homeland Security GIS Summit, Ron Langhelm, geospatial intelligence unit leader, Department of Homeland Security Federal Emergency Management Agency, describes the realities of responding to Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana.

The human element in the use of geospatial technology to respond to emergencies needs to catch up to the technology. This was the heart of former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director James Lee Witt's keynote message at Esri's annual Homeland Security GIS Summit in fall 2006. Witt said that GIS technology provides an ideal common language for supporting emergency preparations, but to use the technology successfully, safety, health, and homeland security agencies must coordinate, collaborate, and train at many levels.

"I don't think anyone in emergency management or public safety could do the planning and training of the exercises that they have to do, based on the risks that we face today, without GIS," said Witt, CEO of Esri Business Partner James Lee Witt Associates, a part of GlobalOptions Group, Inc. "The information that is there [in a GIS] crosses all boundaries of public safety—it is the full envelope of everything we need in public safety and emergency management."

Two events, the Homeland Security GIS Summit and the Health GIS Conference, were held concurrently, October 23–26, in Denver, Colorado. More than 450 delegates attended panel discussions, paper sessions, and workshops and learned more about GIS applications and technology at the GIS Solutions EXPO and Academic Fair. Participants examined the role of geospatial technology and interactive mapping in preparing for and responding to critical health, fire, terrorism, and other emergencies.

The use of GIS for health emergency preparedness was a major focus for panel discussions. In addition, Esri GIS experts demonstrated how ArcGIS is used to author, publish, and use geospatial information during such an event. The software provides users with tools, such as ArcGIS Server, that help users build a framework for communications and data sharing. The newly released ArcGIS 9.2 brings new tools for accessing data resources that are crucial during a crisis. For example, during an earthquake event, workers could access information over the Internet from anywhere and use GIS to carry on vital operations. A demonstration of ArcGIS Server mobile capabilities showed its usefulness for surveying pandemic outbreaks and dynamically sharing that information with the server for all to see. Responders use GIS to create new "actionable information" (i.e., incidents), update infrastructure and operations data, track field staff, and plan routes. ArcGIS Server includes ArcGIS Explorer, a new, lightweight 3D viewer that allows shared access to data, maps, imagery, and GIS tasks via the Web.

Preparation, cooperation, and reinforcement were oft-repeated needs. Witt said, "Sharing data across all boundaries is critical," and stated that forming public/private partnerships at state and local levels right now is an essential step for establishing communication and sharing data, knowledge, and resources.

Ric Skinner, senior GIS coordinator of Baystate Health Geographics, recommended integrating field data into a common operating picture during emergencies by putting it in digital format as quickly as possible, preferably at the source, and using standard formats. Commenting on the need for developing standardized formats—for everything from floodwater to emergency room to fire data—Richard Andrews, advisor to the Department of Homeland Security, said that the first step is to identify the people or agency responsible for deciding the standards.

Witt advocated practicing full-scale field exercises that train responders to use integrated GIS technology on a variety of events and hazards, not just terrorism events. "If you do not fuse the use of these new tools into your day-to-day operations, then it is impossible to really be able to use them well when it is critical," he advised. Public health officials are probably the most recent addition to the incident command structure and are now included with fire and other agencies during incident training exercises.

More Information

More information on the use of GIS technology for emergency preparedness is available on the Web at and

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