How GIS is Used in Emergency Management

You are standing at the base of a devastating mudslide--one that has destroyed many homes in your community, and, potentially, taken several lives. As an emergency management professional, your job is to not only mitigate the current disaster, but to help ensure your community’s future safety. To do so, you’ll need lots of data, and lots of planning--two things Geospatial Information Systems can give you. 

Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) is an advanced computer system that captures, stores, checks and displays data related to positions on the Earth’s surface. For first responders, it can help better pinpoint and understand relationships on a map, helping identify evacuation routes or create mitigation strategies, for example. GIS helps determine and locate potential hazards and save lives--from preparedness and tracking, to response and recovery.

As GIS has matured, it has become a go-to tool for making location-based decisions. But how exactly is it being used--and what does that mean for the future of emergency management?

Cost Mitigation

In 2017, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported there were 16 natural disasters that led to a loss of more than $1 billion--per incident. GIS’s tracking and reporting capabilities were essential in getting cities across the country back on their feet. Communities used GIS data to advocate for their post-disaster financial needs by demonstrating the incident’s overall impact. 

Take Hurricane Irma, which devastated Key West, Florida. GIS’s data-rich reports ensured the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) distributed the dollars communities needed to implement renovations. FEMA was also able to offer a discount on insurance premiums to those who provided proof of impact--information only attainable through GIS technology 

As of July 9, 2019, there have been 6 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the United States. The need for GIS isn’t going away--and it continues to make a difference in recovering communities across the nation.

Hazard Mapping and Rescue 

In states where hurricanes are a real threat, such as Florida, Louisiana, Texas and the Carolinas, GIS data is being used for hazard mapping, and for developing rescue strategies. Hazard mapping, which highlights areas affected by a particular hazard--like hurricanes--helps prevent serious damage and deaths. GIS technology continuously collects data to create a live map of the buildings, streets and even vegetation, all with the goal of recording and reporting damage faster and more efficiently. 

Even before Hurricane Irma, Key West city officials were equipped with pre-downloaded, map-based data that helped them prepare response strategies and damage control plans. Mobile GIS software helped first responders to create a debris assessment that would locate and evaluate areas with the highest vulnerability. This kind of up to date information ensured that FEMA was sent to locations that needed the most support.

Key West continues to use GIS systems to develop live maps of all buildings, streets and even vegetation, in order to record and report damage even faster in future disasters situations. Plans for the future include creating a streamlined crowdsourcing feature where residents can report damage as it happens. 

Limiting Impact of Wildfires

The extremely unpredictable nature of wildfires has led to a reliance on GIS software and its ability to monitor, forecast and minimize their impact. Firefighters are given the ability to see real-time conditions using UAV’s and drones, along with data like wind speed and direction--all-the-while creating real-time maps that alert area residents of the current conditions and escape routes. Even after disaster has struck, GIS software can track the cleanup process and update travel routes. 

One new service offering that has been developed is the “Wildfire Risk Model.” Using multiple layers of GIS and Geospatial data, wildfire risk can be calculated and assessed with great detail. The model helps to create mitigation plans using a variety of risk variables, such as weather conditions, land slope, land topography, wind patterns, fire history and amount of fuel available. 

For California, GIS data has become invaluable. The state has become the driving force behind multiple data platforms such as the GIS Fire Situation Awareness Portal, the Santa Ana Fire Threat Index and the GIS Evacuation Portal. On a national level, this data has also supported a myriad of information services organizations such as the Geospatial Multi-Agency Coordination, the NASA Earth Science Disaster Program and the National Interagency Fire Center. 

As emergency management continues using GIS as a key disaster mitigation tool, the field will continue honing its accuracy. This is one of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s main goals: giving analysts the ability to “quickly process voluminous data...and determine their significance.” This will give emergency responders a deeper knowledge of the safety issues communities face--and strategize how to more proactively address them. And, ultimately saving citizens’ lives-- from hurricanes, wildfires and mudslides alike. 

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