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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Generally, GIS is already being used (and maintained) for land-management/real estate purposes by almost every local government, which means that the foundation for public safety GIS is already in place. By national data sources, most fire and police departments are submitting their incident/response data to national fire and crime databases - the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) and National Crime Information Center (NCIC) - through local records management systems (RMS). The key to a successful local public safety GIS strategy is to interface this RMS data with the local geospatial data.

The best way to marry the emergency incident/response data with GIS is to reach out to your local GIS coordinator. It has been demonstrated repeatedly that this "handshake" is the most important and fundamental first step. Once this relationship is cemented and there is an understanding between public safety and the GIS coordinator on a common goal/purpose, meaningful results will follow in the form of maps, trend analysis, modeling and more.

A National Plan

This year, the IAFC Technology Council, the National Association of State Fire Marshals and the IAFC Metro Chiefs worked collaboratively with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Geospatial Management Office (GMO) to merge a fire service/hazmat data model into the national DHS data model. This was a critical first step for the fire service with much credit to Dan Cotter and his staff at the DHS GMO.

While GIS has many benefits to the fire service, the value is far greater when data is shared (and not duplicated) across disciplines and between all levels of government (tribal, local, state and federal). The development of the Statement of Requirements for future public safety GIS would be of great benefit to a diverse and collective cross section of public safety responders at every level of government. This approach, similar to that undertaken by SAFECOM for communications interoperability, is immediately achievable through existing outreach channels.

In order to move GIS forward in the most effective way possible, GIS must be addressed through a national (not federal ) GIS plan. In concert with this recommendation, the IAFC board unanimously voted on Jan. 23, 2009, to "...support the concept of GIS and the development of a national plan which includes standards for GIS; this would include the development of a strategic plan that will serve as a map to meet this goal."

The time is now to develop the national GIS plan (NGISP) that incorporates and implements collaboration across all public safety disciplines. A national plan will instill collaboration among all public safety disciplines and will engage every level of government in a way of synergy while simultaneously eliminating duplication. A national plan can jump start the process through incentive funding to local and state governments for pilot/proof-of-concept projects.

Critical to its success, a national plan must be inclusive by partnering with other mission-critical organizations (including transportation, health, public service, etc.). Lastly, the national plan must require two-way coordination and communication across and between all levels of government. A national GIS plan should also be a complementary element within the National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP).

GIS is a sleeping giant. The day has come to awaken this sleeping giant and unleash the phenomenal power that it possesses in a way that enhances public safety.

CHARLES WERNER, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 34-year veteran of the fire service and serves as the chief of the Charlottesville VA Fire Department. Chief Werner also serves on the Virginia Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee, the Virginia Secure Commonwealth Panel, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council Governing Board, the IAFC Communications Committee, Chair of the IAFC Technology Council, 1st Vice President of the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association and Chair of the DHS SAFECOM Executive Committee.