Should states take the lead on standards for emergency response data?

The experiences of state and local agencies involved in pilot programs for sharing emergency information have led many to call for national standards for everything from data-sharing agreements to the nuts and bolts of putting icons on maps.

“Within Virtual USA, that is a big advantage that DHS has brought to the table — helping us with the governance structure and helping us begin to get through some of the policy and legal issues,” said Cy Smith, geographic information officer for Oregon. “But it’s still on an informal basis. We’ve got to take the next step.”

Kenny Ratliff, geographic information systems manager for the Kentucky National Guard, said the same problem manifests itself in decisions about what color to use for roads and what icons to use for hospitals. “There was a push a few years ago to define a standard symbology,” Ratliff said. “Now it has moved into an evolving discussion that can’t seem to get good definition.”


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When Ratliff participated in a Federal Emergency Management Agency National Level Exercise earlier this year that involved eight midwestern states around the New Madrid seismic area, a working group had to decide on a common symbology. “DHS has a symbology set. ESRI has symbology sets from a variety of organizations. It’s hard to nail down.”

Robert Griffin, the Homeland Security Department’s director of the Support to First Responders and the Homeland Security Group, said he promised standards are coming. “There are several bodies working on this,” he said. “This is an area that has great attention within DHS. It’s going to be a continuous process of push-pull as we work to develop standards that will allow information to flow.”

Although Smith agreed that some action at a national level is important, at least when it comes to data-sharing agreements, the solution might not be federal. “Once it becomes federal rather than national, that’s when it gets very messy and not very useful,” he said.

Smith suggested that working groups assembled by states and professional organizations might be better prepared to work out the models. Noting that the Model Law for Land Surveying was created in such a fashion and is being widely adopted by states, he said, “if we had something like that for data sharing, it would begin to solve a lot of problems that are right now being solved case by case in litigation.”

“I think it’s just a matter of enough people realizing that we’ve got to solve this,” Smith added. “We’re not going to solve it one state or one county or one city at a time.” 

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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