Advancing Public Safety GIS Locally and Nationally

Charles Werner outlines the use of geographic information systems in emergency responses.


How much do you know about GIS and how effectively is your organization, locality or state using GIS? If you cannot answer this question, the time has come to find out. This article is written to support the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Technology Council's effort to increase...


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How much do you know about GIS and how effectively is your organization, locality or state using GIS? If you cannot answer this question, the time has come to find out.

This article is written to support the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Technology Council's effort to increase GIS awareness in the fire service and to encourage the development of a national GIS plan. The Technology Council's vision is to advance technological adaptation among public safety agencies.

What is GIS?

GIS is defined as a geographic information system that integrates computer hardware, software and data for capturing, managing, analyzing, and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information. GIS allows us to view, understand, question, interpret and visualize data in many ways that reveal relationships, patterns and trends in the form of maps, globes, reports and charts.

The term GIS is most often associated with maps, but mapping is only one very narrow aspect. GIS also enables analysis of data and problem solving. Combining global positioning systems (GPS), data from sensors (flood gauges, radiological, road temperature, etc.) and interacting with rules by exception creates a new result of dynamic mapping/monitoring and change the paradigm from a static-reactive process to proactive forecasting. If a picture paints a thousand words, then it is appropriate to say that GIS paints a million.

This was better described during a recent presentation by Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) Operations Chief Chris McIntosh as "GIS with Brains." VDEM is piloting a dynamic GIS project called the Virginia Interoperability Picture for Emergency Response (VIPER).

The Value of GIS

The value of GIS is particularly compelling during the present economic downturn. GIS is an invaluable tool to conduct a combined analysis of department resources, community risk and response trends. GIS can provide a snapshot of the current community response/risk data relative to the decreasing available resources (personnel, apparatus and fire stations).

Beyond increasing efficiencies in the administration of public safety systems, GIS enhances operational effectiveness by helping personnel to clearly understand and identify community risks, develop plans to ensure adequate deployment of firefighting resources and operationalize those plans by providing information necessary to support an effective response; "saving lives by getting the right information to the right people." GIS also helps to provide a common view of data (common operating picture) that can provide all-inclusive shared situational awareness.

GIS can also be used to perform "what if" modeling to show the impact of resource relocation or fire station closures. Modeling can predict insightful and realistic outcomes that are specifically important to firefighting effectiveness and safety and survival of citizens and firefighters. An effective GIS presentation of proposed decisions empowers citizens to better understand the effect on the community service levels and accept or oppose the recommendations.

Identifying community risk zones and implementing a standard of cover are also required elements of the fire department accreditation process by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI). An effective GIS strategy at the local level will greatly enhance this process.

GIS at the Local Level

Over the past 15 years, many discussions and articles have begun to demonstrate clearly the importance of GIS for the fire service. In the wildland firefighting community and in larger metropolitan fire departments, much progress has been made in applying the use of this technology to help fire-rescue personnel save lives and property more safely and effectively. The time is right to expand this use of GIS to the many other areas where GIS can and must be more effectively used by public safety organizations. One clear path to accomplishing this purpose is to break down the stove-pipes currently limiting the use of existing GIS assets in our communities.

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