GEOG 588
Planning GIS for Emergency Management

The Role of GIS in Disaster Response


When Disaster Strikes, What Next?

In the wake of a serious disaster, GIS managers are expected to provide a wide array of information with short deadlines for a variety of important tasks. First, it is essential for everyone involved to have a clear sense of the current situation, and to receive updates on the situational picture as time progresses. This can be a serious challenge because often a disaster can impact what types of data are available. As you may know already, on 9/11, the EOC for New York was located at 7 World Trade Center, and its state-of-the-art equipment and data were destroyed as a result of the attacks.

For Further Reading

If you're interested, read more here on how GIS resources were developed on an ad hoc basis during the 9/11 crisis.

Any GIS plan for response to an emergency or crisis should consider several key questions:

  • Are there backup sources for equipment and data?
  • Is there an alternate site where personnel can gather in the event that the primary EOC is taken out by the disaster?
  • What are the basic GIS-dependent products you must be able to provide to support fundamental response efforts? 

Even contemporary web-based GIS systems present possible challenges in a real crisis situation. While cloud-hosted solutions can help avoid the risks associated with data storage in a single EOC, many disasters make internet access difficult or impossible. An interview by the GIS Monitor with Dean Hintz, a data interoperability consultant from SAFE Software outlines some of the risks associated with Internet-based GIS solutions for crisis management:

"One of the big gaps [in disaster situations] seems to be real-time data. With good practices on archiving and good collaboration, we can generally get the basemap data OK. Even with the Tsunami response, the basemap data came together fairly rapidly, at least with regards to raster imagery and then, not too long after that, the vector data. The real challenge is disseminating real-time data. One of the good approaches on that is Web services. The limitation on that, however, is having some kind of Internet access. To fill that gap, these rapidly deployed WiFi networks in areas where emergency services are operating would certainly fill a critical gap. We have to make sure that the systems we design—if they depend on geoRSS, WFS, or WMS—have some sort of local caching. You may have intermittent service and you don't want your application to be just off-line as soon as your service drops. So, we have to develop fairly resilient systems that can handle intermittent service. That said, the more rapidly we can deploy a WiFi like that, the more up-to-date your information is going to be."

The rest of the interview is quite interesting. Check it out if you are interested.

Who Needs Help, And Where is The Help?

The most pressing need facing GIS managers during the immediate aftermath of a disaster is to estimate the impact of the disaster on the local population to determine where first-responders should focus rescue efforts. This problem requires an awareness of the scale and scope of the disaster as well as the ability to know where response resources are located, what their capabilities are, and what routes are available for them to take to those who need their help.

On the next page, you'll find your reading assignment for this week, where we'll delve deeper into how GIS is used during response activities, including a focus on the limitations of GIS systems in response situations.