Software gives small Arlington the big picture

Arlington County, Va., fire chief Edward Plaugher can detail every square mile, building and land feature of the Washington, D.C., suburb, which covers 26 square miles and has a population of 189,000.

Even with such human expertise, the county Fire Department uses a system of digital pictures and metrics software to view its territory. Plaugher said the system helps the fire department respond to emergencies and other calls because dispatchers and firefighters use it to see, in seconds, what a house or building looks like, what is around it and how tall it is.

Arlington County was the first U.S. county to install the Pictometry Information System and Electronic Field Study, both from Pictometry International Corp. of Rochester, N.Y. The system came in especially handy Sept. 11, when a hijacked jet crashed into the Pentagon'in Arlington County.

Soon after the crash, county workers pulled up pictures of the structure. The software measured the area of the crash and provided county authorities, the FBI and military police with as many as 12 views of the building.

'We could count the windows and figure out how large the blast damage was,' Plaugher said. 'We can plot ... exact measurements of the critical components of the incident scene and then pass the information to the other authorities.'

Plaugher said federal authorities were given printouts of Pentagon pictures so they could orient themselves within the large area of land.

The system, which cost the county $14,000, runs on a 1-GHz Pentium III notebook PC from WinBook Computer Corp. of Hillard, Ohio. The notebook has 256M of RAM and a 20G hard drive.

The system runs on Microsoft Windows operating systems and can be used with most geographic information systems software, said Dick Kaplan, the company president and CEO.

Pictometry provided digitized aerial photographs of the county in square mile sections from three directions: straight down, 40 degree side angles from north to south and from east to west. Pictometry then divided the county into 49 subsectors of 750 square feet and created nine more oblique angle pictures.

The county stored the images and through the Electronic Field Study software measured the distance between two points, the radius of a section and other features.

Arlington County's images take up 9G of storage. Larger counties might need anywhere from 60G to a terabyte of space, Kaplan said.

'Before this system, we had to measure the distances by hand,' Plaugher said. 'This gives us a pretty wonderful operational capability.'

The department shared the data with the county police, public works, parks and recreation, and environmental services departments.

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