Cities and Counties Homeland Strengthen Security with Geographic Information Systems

Cities and counties are enhancing their geographic information system capabilities to strengthen homeland security and prepare for natural emergencies.

At 7:30 on a Tuesday morning, a bomb blast rips through a government building in the center of Grand Forks, N.D., sending glass flying for blocks, rupturing gas lines, and killing or injuring scores of people.

Police and fire personnel en route to the disaster use notebook computers to access the city’s geographic information system (GIS), which displays an aerial map of the city. First responders zoom in on the government building and calculate the bomb’s lethal blast area and falling glass radius within seconds.

A mouse click on the building shows floor plans, the number of employees likely to be present in the building and any hazardous materials. First responders also gather information on underground gas and utility lines in the area by clicking on manhole covers near the disaster.

This is a horrible, fictitious scenario that Grand Forks’ GIS/CAD Coordinator Adam Jonasson plays over and over again in his mind. But the technology is real, and it’s just one of many GIS enhancements that state and local governments are incorporating into their homeland security programs.

“It’s the type of system that you’re glad if you don’t have to use it,” Jonasson says. But there is a positive side. Grand Forks is standardizing its emergency response systems so they also can be used for natural disasters.

“Many people recognize that [GIS] is an important piece of their emergency preparedness plans,” explains Alan Shark, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Public Technology Institute, a nonprofit technology-oriented organization representing local governments.

The threat isn’t always from terrorists, Shark adds, pointing out that governments may have to face natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes or tsunamis. “Mapping is critical to realize what’s going on and to convey that to the general public,” he explains.

“Governments now realize the impact geospatial data sharing has,” Shark says. “It cuts across all areas of services (public safety, health and social services) and levels of government (federal, state, local and regional) in helping officials make more informed decisions.”

Enhancing Crisis Planning

During the last two decades, Grand Forks has relied on GIS mapping technology from Autodesk to effectively manage the city’s infrastructure. In the last five years, Jonasson’s team has added technology that links those maps to city databases.

City crews will soon use wireless notebook computers to retrieve work orders and maintenance information by clicking on a GIS map. “It’s growing into somewhat of a dashboard for our internal use by field workers,” Jonasson says.

Grand Forks’ newest GIS software addition, Autodesk’s Crisis Command, adds critical information that first responders need in a security emergency, and it standardizes police and fire information. Crisis Command’s tools can quickly calculate the effects of a bomb blast, fire or chemical spill and then map the results to scale. If a sniper were to terrorize the city, the software could calculate the sniper’s line of sight.

However, Jonasson says the real power of GIS is the ability to start with a 20-square-mile city view and zoom into one building. A mouse click on the building reveals floor plans, heating and ventilation systems, gas and electric shutoff locations, any stored hazardous materials, Internet Protocol addresses to surveillance cameras and contact information. This provides answers to “all the important questions first responders would ask if they were responding to an incident,” he points out.

To acquire such granular details, police and fire personnel must “preplan” each building by visiting the facility, gathering the information and inputting it into the database. Police and fire squads have been preplanning buildings in Grand Forks for years. “The difference is that more detailed data is now available in the field when an emergency arises,” Jonasson says.

More than nine months into its implementation, Grand Forks has preplanned 30 buildings that it considers most vulnerable, with plans to add details for up to 120 more structures this summer.

Grand Forks faces other challenges. Its 35 police squad cars carried older notebook computers that couldn’t run the Crisis Command software. The notebooks were updated earlier this year, but the new software hadn’t been downloaded as of May.

“Right now, [the notebooks are] being used more as a tool in the office,” Jonasson says. “Captains and battalion chiefs are using [them] to get in their preplans. Full implementation for the fire and police departments will happen over the summer. All have been trained, but the need for follow-up training exists.”

Grand Forks’ fire department plans to make Crisis Command its primary software for fire response. Today, the department uses different software packages in the office and in the field. The fire department wants to standardize on one software program so “firefighters can be trained on it when they come in,” Jonasson says.

Shared Responsibility

North Dakota may not be an obvious spot for a terrorist attack, but the counties surrounding Washington, D.C., are. In Fairfax County, Va., which covers 395 square miles just west of the district and includes a population of more than 1 million people, emergency response is a shared responsibility between federal and state governments.

“Since Sept. 11, the county has significantly enhanced its emergency response and operation capacity and capabilities,” says Tom Conry, GIS and mapping branch manager for Fairfax County. Last year, Fairfax County opened a new alternate emergency operations center (AEOC) that includes use of the county’s existing GIS technology. Fairfax County’s GIS system includes ESRI mapping software with database information stored in an Oracle enterprise server using Oracle Spatial, which manages location information data. The AEOC taps the enterprise GIS data warehouse, which uses more than two terabytes of space on the county’s storage area network.

The county’s emergency management office “realized that whenever the AEOC is in operation—either in a test mode or actual response— it needs full-fledged GIS capabilities in that center,” Conry says. So, GIS staff members are on call to staff the center when an emergency arises.

At the same time, Conry’s staff has started augmenting key data on the county’s infrastructure. GIS data is updated daily and is immediately available for emergency operations. Fairfax County will soon add WebEOC software from Emergency Services Integrators, a Web-based emergency management communications system that makes incident information—including GIS—readily available via the Web. Virginia plans to standardize all county and local agencies on WebEOC software.

Conry chaired Fairfax County’s Emergency Management Coordinating Committee’s GIS Subcommittee, which documents the needs of county agencies for GIS technology in emergency management. That subcommittee proposed a list of 10 enhancements to GIS systems that could improve security. Most have been implemented or are in the process of being implemented.

For starters, Conry would like to add daytime population data to the GIS database. “A lot of these incidents happen in the day,” he points out.

Like other counties, Fairfax also must deal with local utility companies about access to their sensitive data. “Some of them won’t [share] because they’re concerned about the security of their data,” such as transformer locations and critical switching areas, Conry says. “But it’s important for the county to know where some of those things are in terms of responding.”

Conry stresses that GIS information should be used, enhanced and shared on a daily basis to ensure that county government personnel are well-versed in its capabilities. “GIS is not an add-on to emergency response,” he explains. “If used day to day, it becomes embedded in your process and becomes a core asset for operation and emergency response.”

Homeland Security Efforts

In nearby Prince William County, Va., the GIS division knows firsthand the benefits of GIS technology for homeland security efforts. At a regional exercise in March at the Quantico Marine Corps Base, Prince William County activated its emergency operations center for a train derailment scenario involving a chlorine gas spill.

“Our GIS staff ran plume modeling based on wind direction to determine the impacted area,” says Kathy Prescott, GIS division chief. The team received digital photos from the field and sent digital maps to the field using ESRI’s ArcGIS software.

Five Northern Virginia counties use similar GIS technology, enabling them to share information via a Web service. “We have the same standards for our street center lines, which is useful,” Prescott explains. “For emergency response, we have the capability to set up a service that would allow Prince William and Loudoun Counties to go seamlessly between the two jurisdictions.”

Several government organizations, coordinating through the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, have stepped in to expand information sharing beyond Virginia into Maryland and Washington, D.C. Collaboration is still in the early stages. However, if Prince William County should need to share its geospatial data with Grand Forks, N.D., the city’s Autodesk system could accept and read ESRI data, as well as information from any other type of GIS system.

“In this day and time, we need total interoperability with fire departments, law enforcement, EMS [Emergency Medical Services], emergency management and hospitals,” points out Jon Hansen, manager for emergency response solutions at Autodesk and a retired assistant chief at the Oklahoma City Fire Department. “It takes that entire response team to handle a catastrophic situation.”

Real-World Challenges

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is implementing a metadata model that defines the kinds of data that should be available to federal, state and local governments in emergency situations. This Extensible Markup Language (XML) model, which is known as the National Information Exchange Model and is built from the Global Justice XML Data Model, is supposed to help all levels of government share incident information, including GIS data. However, standardization is still a way off.

“One of the challenges for local governments is setting up XML-type directories and services to start mapping their data into these metadata models,” explains Tom Conry, GIS and mapping branch manager for Fairfax County, Va. “That will be a long path.

“Being able to implement an XML metadata structure is beyond GIS. It’s an IT issue. Some local governments lack the necessary resources, and when large metropolitan cities are grouped with small towns, that’s quite a spectrum of capabilities.”

At the data level, all local governments should continually add new information to the database, but not all of them can afford to do that. Conry, chairman of the National Capital Region’s GIS Committee, proposes that the federal government pick up the tab for expensive aerial photography, which would free up capital for adding new data.

“Sustainability is a key component of data for emergency response,” Conry says. “If your data is not up to date, you’re in trouble.”

Confronting Rapid Growth With Technology

Prince William County, Va., embeds GIS technology in county services for citizens and businesses. / By Kathy Prescott

“Prince William County Government is an organization where elected leaders, staff and citizens work together to make our community the best.” The first sentence of our vision statement shows the county’s commitment to providing services that benefit the community.

Prince William County is located southwest of Washington, D.C., in northern Virginia and is one of the most rapidly growing counties in the country. Tools like geographic information systems are necessary to deal with the increased demands that this exponential rate of development activity has placed on county resources.

GIS is a component of information technology and is addressed with other IT initiatives in the county’s information technology strategic plan to provide technology support for the county’s strategic goals. The county’s strategic plan, updated every four years, addresses the expectations of citizens for services from their local government.

The IT strategic plan supports e-government applications that provide access to county services via the Internet. Web applications have placed GIS capabilities on every desktop in the county and allow county staff and citizens to access current geographic information at any time.

The county’s GIS, deployed in 1987, provides dynamic geographic information to support many of the daily functions in the government.

The powerful analysis tool is used by public safety staff for crime analysis; to calculate emergency response times; and in the E911 call center to pinpoint the location of the caller. GIS technology is used in pre-incident planning and during activation of the emergency operations center.

As a land management tool, GIS is used for every phase of land development from creation of the comprehensive land use plan, through rezoning, permitting, final build out and tax assessment. GIS supports transportation planning and storm water management activities, critical issues to consider for land development.

The county’s economic development Web page promotes business activity through an interactive GIS Web application that allows queries to locate available business sites. A potential client may access current aerial photography as well as property dimensions, zoning information and access to the closest interstate.

County Mapper and Demographic Mapper, two popular interactive mapping applications on the Web, provide access to current land and population information with the ability to turn on and off various map themes and to develop customized maps. Through these Web sites citizens may find valuable information related to their property, such as where their children will attend school, which voting precinct they are located in and where they must go to vote. They may examine their property assessment through a link to the county’s real-estate assessment Web site. They are able to locate the closest library, fire station or hospital, and also get driving directions. In the future our plans for the county’s GIS include a focus on map services that will extend analysis capabilities, using the power of GIS, to our Web users. Current capabilities allow a user to look at the data; what we want to do is allow a user to evaluate options and alternatives using the data.

We will also become involved in more regional projects that recognize the fact that geography does not stop at our county boundary. Many of our neighboring jurisdictions have similar GIS technology, enabling us to extend information and databases across borders. Our GIS Web service has the potential to match up with neighboring jurisdictions for a seamless map. This regional GIS activity will be particularly useful for transportation projects and for emergency response—two issues that challenge the region.

Today, funding for the GIS program is provided through the county’s annual budgeting process. An established annual budget of $1.7 million supports 22 staff, hardware needs and software licensing. Additional GIS staff in key agencies provide support for agency-specific geographic data and analysis.

With GIS technology we are able to do the right thing for the customer and for the community every time.

Kathy Prescott is GIS division chief for Prince William County, Va.

Oct 31 2006