Calif. city shakes up damage reports

'GIS is a beautiful tool for visualizing where the damage is. [In the 1994 earthquake] we could have seen the damage like a rash.'

'Scott Fabbro

Scott Fabbro, project coordinator for the land information system of Glendale, Calif., learned from the experiences of his father, a Federal Emergency Management Agency inspector, how vital geographic data can be in an emergency.

'My dad never touched a computer,' Fabbro said. 'I'd go into his office in Pasadena, and he would have stacks and stacks of binders.' Each binder represented a structure he was responsible for inspecting and marking with pins on a map. The elder Fabbro inspected property damage after the powerful Northridge earthquake that hit California in 1994.

Now Glendale's property inspectors report damage wirelessly from the field with Fujitsu notebook PCs, Compaq iPaq handhelds and other wireless devices. They use Accela ERS emergency response software from Accela Inc. of San Francisco, which combines a geographic information system with FEMA's ATC-20 building safety evaluation form.

Inspectors geocode the information, marking on a digital map the location of damage and its severity. A red marker indicates the most severe damage. Occupancy of a red-tagged building is prohibited by city ordinance.

Yellow markers indicate less severe damage; property owners can enter at their own risk. Green tags indicate mild damage with no occupancy restrictions. Other city employees can pull up the map online and see instantly which areas are most damaged.

Before the city began using the wireless system in 1999, the damage reporting process was cumbersome, Fabbro said. An inspector would call in an incident, and Fabbro would create a damage report. The inspector would then return to the office with a stack of ATC-20 forms to map.

Field reports

Now Fabbro and his team of 11 field inspectors use Accela's Kiva Remote Inspector software to post geocoded damage information onto a digital map, a process Fabbro calls 'meatballing.' Inspectors no longer have to come back to city hall with their data, Fabbro said. Now they can post it to the Web directly from the field.

Glendale is using the ERS system for disasters other than earthquakes, too. The area 'dodged a bullet' a few months ago, Fabbro said, when a wildfire broke out near Glendale. The early September fire grew to 1,100 acres and threatened 200 homes and a radio tower before being extinguished.

Because Glendale runs disaster drills every few months, Fabbro said, the city was well prepared for potential disasters.

Glendale, located about 10 miles from the epicenter of the 1994 earthquake, suffered significant damage including collapsed parking structures. Fabbro said that if the city had had the ERS system then, officials could have given 'a profound level of service to the people affected.' As it was, it took weeks to find the heaviest pockets of damage, Fabbro said. 'GIS is a beautiful tool for visualizing where the damage is,' Fabbro said. For the Northridge quake, 'We could have seen the damage like a rash.'

Fabbro and his team are working with the California Office of Emergency Services and FEMA to better coordinate the damage data among the agencies.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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