GEOG 588
Planning GIS for Emergency Management

What Are Scenarios?



Besides researching previous disasters and GIS-enabled emergency management technology, an excellent way to forecast what is needed in a future GIS system is to develop scenarios. You've already had some experience with this in Lesson 3 where you wrote up a small scenario for a potential disaster event on a college campus.

In a disaster management setting, scenarios are realistic stories that describe what would happen to people, infrastructure, and the natural environment with a given set of disaster conditions. Often, scenarios are developed as part of a hazard assessment process where they can be used to predict the possible effects on a place given different types of hazard situations. Scenarios are also used to create training simulations to test preparedness measures and response plans. This latter purpose is particularly relevant for this class; we need to use scenarios to evaluate the extent to which our GIS infrastructure and analytical capabilities will actually hold up during a disaster situation.

In system design activities, scenarios can end up being quite formal in terms of their structure. For further reading on the essence of scenario-based design, check out this section from GEOG 583.

Disaster Scenario Examples

A great way to understand scenarios is to read a few yourself. The US Department of Homeland Security prepared a report in 2005 that describes a wide range of potential disaster scenarios. I recommend you take a look at these scenarios (3 mb, PDF). The two examples given for natural disasters are the most relevant for this course, but you may find the others valuable as well.

A completely different perspective on disaster scenarios can be seen in this planning document from Lloyd's of London, one of the world's largest insurance markets. Lloyd's provides additional examples of disaster scenarios here as well.

Scenarios often go hand-in-hand with Tabletop exercises. Tabletop exercises are simulated response activities. Usually these are held in an extremely generic hotel ballroom, with stakeholders of all types hunkered down on their laptops. An exercise begins with a scenario description, and then a moderator provides additional information during the response activities to throw things into further chaos and test the limits of what people are prepared for. FEMA has some nice resources available if you'd like to do one of these yourself. They've even made videos to simulate news reporting, although they need to be about forty times more hyperbolic to match the 24/7 news channel intensity these days.

For this lesson, I want you to focus on scenarios that include the following elements:

  • Timeline organization (the scenario is presented as a series of events happening over time)
  • Projected impacts on people, infrastructure, and the natural environment for each time period
  • Identify key leverage points for each time period where GIS could be applied successfully

My hope is that you come away from this lesson with an appreciation for how scenarios can be used to develop meaningful and effective plans for GIS sytems to support emergency management activities. Having your organization frame its GIS plans according to one or more realistic disaster scenarios will help connect technology to realistic community needs.