Center Integrates Response for Half the Globe

by Monica Pratt, ArcUser Editor

ArcUser July-September 2001

The Pacific Disaster Center (PDC) focuses on providing emergency management information support. PDC's goal is not only to develop and provide the right information--this federally-sponsored center strives to give that information in the right form to the right person so the right decision can be made in responding to natural and manmade disasters in and around the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Lava flow map 

PDC generates 140 products from analysis of federal, state, regional, and commercial data.

Using many GIS-based products, PDC has developed new ways of helping emergency managers respond to the challenges of this volatile region.

The cost in human suffering and financial losses from hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, and other disasters in this region can be enormous. In 2000, flooding in southern Thailand and northern Malaysia killed 65 people and caused $27 million in damage. A 7.9-magnitude earthquake felt across Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal on Jan. 26, 2001, killed more than 20,000 people, injured another 32,000, and caused losses estimated at $5.5 billion. Coordinating emergency response to events like these is an urgent and formidable challenge that requires event specific information delivered in a timely manner.

It's a Big Job

Collaboration and data integration are watchwords at PDC owing not only to magnitude and frequency of disasters in this area but also because the center supports emergency managers working in a region that is both large and culturally diverse. The PDC "service area" covers 105 million square miles or more than half of the globe.

Initially the PDC's area of interest comprised Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, American Samoa, the Marshall Islands, the Northern Marianas, Palau, and Micronesia. In 1998 Public Law 105-174 expanded the PDC mandate to match the area of responsibility for the Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command. This larger operational sphere extends from the west coast of the continental United States to the east coast of Africa and includes the Indian Ocean and almost all of the Pacific Ocean and eastern Asia and presents an enormous challenge.

The devastation cause by Hurricane Iniki in 1992 spurred the United States Congress to fund PDC. Headquartered in Hawaii on the island of Maui, with supporting facilities on the island of Oahu, the center is centrally located to respond to the natural disasters in and along the Pacific and Indian oceans. PDC began operations in 1997 and works with state and federal agencies, private entities, non-government organizations, as well as regional and international government organizations. Federal participants include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Weather Service, U.S. Geological Survey, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and U.S. Department of Defense.

All About Relationships

The foundation of disaster management today and in the future is a strong relationship among disaster managers. Disasters in one country can affect surrounding countries. Large-scale events such as hurricanes are indifferent to political boundaries. Events that appear local may require mitigation, which involves the entire region. The need for relief efforts and the economic disruption caused by a natural disaster can make it a global concern.

"We need tools that can quickly give us the right answer that may be contained in different data sources. We need tools that integrate different types of information, and that's what GIS does," said PDC onsite Director Joe Lees. "We use the technology to enable more effective collaboration. We want an information system that will give back more information to a user than the user puts into it. For example, each one puts in one and gets back ten."

In any disaster, information flow is a big challenge because most information is collected in application-specific manner. Often, data collectors structure and think about data exclusively as it relates to a particular field such as transportation or weather. Responding to disasters requires that all types of information for an area be integrated and that is what makes GIS an effective tool. In addition to geospatial and imagery resources, PDC applies expertise from many disciplines using an organizational approach covering customer applications support to users, training, system implementation, applications development addressing technology transfer, the acquisition management and use of a variety of data and information resources.

Lees sees the PDC integrated approach as a bridge that connects the community of those who need to know information with those who can supply that information. Data collection is just one aspect of PDC's activities. After data has been acquired, primary information is extracted, relevant knowledge relating to specific events is formulated, and the synthesized information is transmitted to decision makers.

PDC builds on existing regional infrastructure and integrates data and capabilities from both federal and non-federal sources. While the center does not conduct emergency management operations, it does make technology, tools, and training as well as current event-related information available to emergency managers.

Customer-Driven Products

Currently, PDC generates more than 140 different information products, most GIS-based, and from the analysis of data obtained from commercial, federal, state, local, and regional sources. PDC data and products are distributed to emergency managers who are registered users of the PDC system. Users receive these products via the Internet, an Intranet, video, telephone, fax, pagers, e-mail, and hard copy. PDC's public Web site contains information about the center and links to current watches, warnings, and advisories posted on other agencies' Web site.

PDC quote

Daily weather situation reports, weather imagery, tsunami travel time maps, tsunami evacuation maps, flood inundation maps, annotated imagery of damaged areas, storm tracking maps, and maps of available shelters are examples of the types of products distributed by PDC. These products aid in all phases of emergency management--mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. Unlike other organizations that provide information based on internal demands, PDC is customer driven and designed around support for decision makers. The development of new products and capabilities is ongoing and based on user input. In addition to routine products, PDC can generate custom products and can supply collaboration tools that support interaction between users and information providers.

The Future of Emergency Management

The PDC serves as a model for global, regional, and local initiatives in disaster information management and as a vehicle for testing scientific, technological, and organizational processes. The PDC model may be expanded worldwide using the vision of a robust integrated virtual emergency management network. Elements of this network include a distributed knowledge base, communications channels, and use of an established set of standards and protocols.

PDC on a global scale. 

The PDC model may be expanded worldwide using the vision of a robust integrated virtual emergency management network.


PDC's new prototype Web site, currently undergoing user testing, is an exciting step in that direction. It focuses on presenting a Common Operating Picture (COP) of the area of responsibility showing all disaster-related events as they happen. PDC uses ArcIMS, ArcSDE, and Oracle to capture and maintain this COP. Emergency managers can create their own events as well as add their own products. Information can be annotated directly in the map frame then stored at the center for access by all users.

Products may be in any form useful to the community, such as simple text, spreadsheet, video, Microsoft Word document, or Microsoft PowerPoint presentation. Built-in security gives the emergency manager the option of limiting access to this information to the specific community that needs it. Additional collaboration tools such as a text chat or a video teleconferencing are available for emergency manager use. The enhanced exchange of vital event information on an international scale would help save lives and reduce economic loss.

For more information visit the PDC public Web site or contact PDC's Public Communications Manager Kathryn Ingram.

Note: This article was not written by, nor is it intended to express the views of, the U.S. government.

Table of Contents for the July–September 2001 issue

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