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Supersizing Emergency Management with GIS

Homeland security activities are a superset of the traditional emergency management cycle of risk assessment and planning, mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. In addition to processes minimize the effects of both natural and man-made disasters, homeland security includes processes that educate the public and foster cooperation and communication.

GIS, which extends the capabilities of traditional emergency management activities, is even more critical in homeland security activities which require a much higher degree of coordination across jurisdictions (federal, state, local) and a greater degree of data integration. Threats to homeland security not only come from dramatic acts of violence but can take the form of more insidious attacks on agriculture, the information infrastructure, and the financial community.

This means that homeland security activities must involve those outside the emergency management community. Emergency management is cumulative--each phase builds on data and information generated by the previous phase.

Risk Assessment and Planning

Before any meaningful mitigation or preparation can occur, analysis of the hazards, risks, and likelihood of a terrorist attack must be made. The modeling capabilities of GIS show planners the effects of many types of attacks on critical resources, infrastructure, and populations and can reveal additional problems caused by proximity to hazards such as chemical storage. After identifying the hazards, assessing the risks, and prioritizing the values (i.e., assets of greatest value), both strategic and tactical plans are formulated.


With the information generated by risk assessment and planning, steps can be taken to limit or, in some cases, eliminate the effects of attacks. Preventing a terrorist event or minimizing its effects involves activities carried out at different levels. These activities can be as systemic as community health monitoring or as targeted as identifying and limiting access to buildings or information. Mitigation measures are carried out through changing policy or operational procedures (i.e., changing what is normally done) or by physical actions (i.e., reinforcing or relocating structures, posting guards).


For risks that cannot be sufficiently mitigated, preparedness measures are developed. These measures limit the loss of life and property and enhance response. Deciding how first responder teams will be staged and deployed, developing optimal evacuation routes, and stockpiling supplies are all preparedness activities. Again, modeling events in GIS helps with preparation activities.


These activities, immediately after an event, assist victims, stabilize the situation, and limit secondary damage. The graphic presentation and data integration provided by GIS let responders quickly grasp the situation and make more informed decisions. GIS supported response efforts at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by coordinating the search for survivors, keeping rescuers supplied, and by identifying hazardous areas.


Following a event, returning all systems to normal or better is typically a two-step process. Short-term recovery restores vital life-support systems--food and water are available, electrical service resumes, sanitation needs are met. Infrastructure information supplied through GIS speeds this process. Rebuilding a community, the goal of long term recovery, many take months or years. With GIS, pre-event conditions can be documented so communities and individuals can more easily qualify for aid or settle insurance claims. Completing the emergency management cycle, risk assessment and planning analysis can help ensures the integrity and safety of new construction that is part of long term recovery.

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