GIS Moves Online, Enhances Disaster Response with New Data Sources

John Heltzel may have delivered the deadpan quote of the week at the 2013 Esri Users Conference in San Diego, when he told a group of senior business executives, “It is not a good day in emergency management when the guy on The Weather Channel says he is coming to your state.”

It happened to Heltzel on March 2, 2012, when powerful tornadoes tore through four states, causing 41 storm-related fatalities and wreaking $3.1 billion in damage. Twenty-two of those deaths occurred in Kentucky, where Heltzel is a brigadier general in the Kentucky National Guard and director of the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management.

Yet last year’s deadly tornado outbreak was hardly an isolated event for Heltzel. Over the past five years, Kentucky has had 10 presidentially declared disasters—a proclamation that makes federal funding available for emergency relief and reconstruction once a state has exhausted its ability to meet its citizens’ needs. Heltzel describes a freakish ice storm in early 2009 as Kentucky’s “single greatest catastrophe in 100 years,” with ice-coated trees causing statewide power outages in sub-zero temperatures—and resulting in 24 deaths.

2009 Ice Storm, Natural Disasters, Extreme Weather

2009 Ice Storm in Paducah, KY (NWS)

To Heltzel, the key to emergency response and disaster relief is maintaining “situational awareness”—especially regarding available resources and infrastructure. “It’s all about ‘What do I have? What do I need? And how do I get it there?’” he says. And the key to real-time situational awareness, Heltzel says, is online geographic information system (GIS) mapping technology, especially as new analytic software and tracking capabilities have been integrated over the past two years with Esri’s flagship product, ArcGIS.

Throughout last week’s user conference, Esri emphasized how it’s been working to integrate “location analytics” with a host of business intelligence products, from Microsoft’s Excel spreadsheets to Teradata systems for data mining. The Redlands, CA-based developer of GIS software also said ArcGIS is now available online, giving users access to higher-resolution, 30-meter imagery for the entire United States. More demographic products also are available, along with imagery maps of soils, geology, vegetation, habitat, and species throughout the U.S.

At the same time, Esri has been working on a different front with specialized consulting firms like Washington, DC-based Witt O’Brien to integrate incident command systems designed to help officials manage their disaster response with online GIS mapping technology that shares imagery and data—creating a common operational picture for multi-agency response efforts.

The benefits of integrating online GIS systems with multiple data sources became apparent in California as emergency management officials scrambled to respond to fast-moving wildfires, such as a 2007 firestorm in San Diego County that killed seven, destroyed 1,500 homes, and forced the evacuation of 500,000 residents. The  Visualization Center of the Geography Department at San Diego State University proved to be the key coordination center during the 2007 fire, but it’s difficult to pull together multiple data sources on the fly.

Today’s technology, though, is “truly transformational in the ability to share information and to overlay data from other sources,” says Ken Burris, Witt O’Brien’s CEO. Yet the system also is flexible enough to provide different information to different users. “There’s no such thing as common operating software, because everybody has different things that they want to see,” Burris says.

“The partnerships are overtaking the technology in emergency management,” says Heltzel, who says the analytic, tracking, and information sharing capabilities being integrated with the system are changing the way his team runs Kentucky’s emergency operations center.

John Heltzel of Kentucky

For example, Heltzel says Kentucky’s response to the tornado outbreak of 2012 was noteworthy because it was the first time his office had used new GIS data capabilities to identify the closest search and rescue teams to the neighborhoods that were hit hardest by the tornadoes. With caches of “mission-ready packages” designated for disaster relief identified as “available” or “not available” on GIS maps, Heltzel says emergency management officials in Kentucky are bringing their initial response time from 72 hours to six.

“The idea is to look at things geospatially, and things start to make a lot more sense,” says Robert Greenberg of G&H International Services, a consulting firm providing technical support for Virtual USA, an initiative intended to establish collaboration and communications among federal, state, and local emergency responders. “To me, the real step forward is in the collaboration between state and local governments to create [technical] standards and frameworks [for supporting GIS systems], and to do it in a way that is not too prescriptive.”

The new model for coordinating multi-state efforts in a regional response to a natural disaster is the Central United States Earthquake Consortium (CUSEC), a partnership of eight states along the New Madrid seismic zone and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to Russ Johnson, Esri’s director of global public safety. Disaster modeling and planning capabilities integrated with the software are enabling CUSEC to anticipate what could happen in a 7.2-magnitude quake near major oil and gas pipelines that run through the region from the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s not about lessons learned,” says Heltzel, who is a member of CUSEC’s board of directors. “We have kind of a history in emergency management of learning the same lessons over and over. So it’s about lessons applied. The New Madrid fault is the largest naturally occurring threat in this region, and it would be a no notice, come-as-you-are event. If it happens now, it would disrupt the oil and gas pipelines that supply the Eastern Seaboard.”

In planning for Capstone, a multi-state earthquake preparedness exercise scheduled for next year, Heltzel says the biggest shocker was learning that just about every freeway in Kentucky is expected to collapse in a 7.2-magnitude quake. If energy pipelines and freeways are both knocked out in an earthquake, how would oil and gas get transported to the East Coast?

“Nationally, people are realizing what they’re going to gain from these exercises,” says Esri’s Johnson. “The necessity to coordinate and collaborate with your partners has become an imperative.”

Adds Heltzel, “And I’m able to do a better job at leadership, because the right information is there.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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