gis data in a disaster


Location intelligence powers next generation emergency response

Hurricane Sandy was the most destructive and deadliest storm of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, and the third costliest in United States history. Sandy also provided  an object lesson for cities whose first responders and other public safety departments had been increasingly reliant on cellular and internet broadband infrastructure for communications during major events. During that storm, public safety officials lost communication because of an overwhelmed network.

As a result of this failure, public safety organizations began exploring the purchase of a new broadband infrastructure. Only this time its exclusive purpose would be to facilitate communication during catastrophic events like Hurricane Sandy, when multiple agencies are exchanging critical data and communications. After a lengthy scoping and procurement process to allow private companies bidding rights to provide the service, AT&T won a contract to build and manage the new network. Thus was born FirstNet, the first nationwide, public safety broadband infrastructure dedicated to helping law enforcement, firefighters and emergency medical services crews save lives and protect communities more effectively.  

Initially FirstNet looked at the existing broadband infrastructure strictly as a challenge of scale. The only geographic concern was the physical location of towers. But, with the emergence of Next Generation 911 technology -- wherein people can transmit text, images and video to emergency responders -- it became increasingly pressing to foster a location-based understanding of emergency response. This way, no matter what data came through the network, emergency responders could understand the geographic context of it. For instance, a picture of a downed power line is useless unless police know where the danger exists and utility crews know where to send field repair technicians. Location intelligence is critical.

How can location intelligence benefit this entirely new network? And more importantly, how do we fortify a physical broadband infrastructure with Next Generation 911 capabilities that also support interoperability?

There are four location intelligence capabilities in particular that will allow FirstNet to be a truly next-generation service for government agencies during emergencies and natural disasters.

1. Situational awareness

Most public safety data contains an element of location. Street cameras, precincts, neighborhood boundaries, hot spots, elevation, land use and demographics all have a location aspect, and all feed into a holistic view of a disaster. Location intelligence provides much needed geographic context. Using geographic information systems to integrate these various data layers together begins to provide decision-makers better situational awareness. Each of these layers gives first responders immediate information and insight into various aspects of the event -- where it is occurring and, most importantly, who it is affecting. Location intelligence allows decision makers to answer critical questions. Who is in an affected area? Where are they located? Are there resources nearby to support the necessary response?  Combining  data from a host of services including government agencies' internal data services, enterprise GIS, demographics and other sensor data feeds opens up a world of possibilities for FirstNet.

2. Portable reporting

One of the most important features of a web application is the ability to have the same kinds of location intelligence capabilities and real-time awareness accessible both in the office and in the field. Custom-designed web apps for smartphones and tablets make it easy for first responders to gain an increased understanding of data during an emergency. These tools also enable faster and more efficient data collection and collaboration because information from the field can be instantly transferred and analyzed by officials at headquarters.

3. Information synthesis

As the flow of information over FirstNet increases, managing large volumes of data will become more critical. Agencies will want to visualize and analyze larger datasets, especially those derived from internet of things sensor data. Tools and technologies that can handle this big data are becoming indispensable. Location intelligence tools make the exploration, analysis and iteration of such information easier by infusing it with demographic data to provide additional context and guided workflows for common tasks.

4. Analyzing and interpreting sensor data

As the IoT continues to bloom and communities modernize, each aspect of infrastructure will have a component that connects it to a geospatial network, allowing departments to see the status of their assets with the added context of where. This isn’t just for flood gauges or digital thermometers -- location intelligence is now enabling the government enterprise to collect data from unconventional sources like Waze and social media feeds. By cross-checking authoritative data against this crowdsourced, citizen-derived information, public safety agencies can get a more complete picture of the event to which they are responding. And by monitoring and integrating this data, they can ensure that real-time information such as road closures and obstructions are accurate and up-to-the-minute.

The future of location-based response

These innovations don’t necessarily depend on dedicated, wired broadband infrastructure for interoperability. If a powerful storm destroys all the cell network towers, responders can  deploy a portable cellular network that only services the geographic area where it is needed. Known as cellular on wheels, these moveable, transient wireless networks can only function with a location-powered backbone, a geographic context that anchors them to the assets they serve.

FirstNet will allow government agencies to connect during massive public emergencies on a level that previously has  been difficult because of the roadblocks inherent in large siloed organizations. But location intelligence -- enabled  by web apps and a holistic approach to big data and analytics  --  will make this new communication infrastructure a key part of any community’s Next Generation 911 platform.

About the Author

Mike King is global industry manager, emergency call taking and dispatch, at Esri.

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