GEOG 858
Spatial Data Science for Emergency Management

Disaster Preparedness


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Credit: © Penn State University is licensed under 


Actions taken prior to a disaster with the intent of ensuring a better event response

  • Planning
  • Training and Exercises
  • Logistics
  • Technology infrastructure
  • Agency and stakeholder coordination
  • Provide information and tools to citizens

An Ounce of Preparation... worth a pound of cure, right? Often disaster situations do not present themselves with substantial warning. Some events, like earthquakes or terror attacks, occur with little or no advanced warning. Other events, like hurricanes or tsunamis, may allow for some substantial amount of time (ranging from an hour or two in the case of a tsunami to several days in the case of a hurricane) to prepare for the initial impact. No matter what the type of event, there are ways we can prepare by taking advantage of geospatial capabilities.

In lesson, we will explore geospatial enabled preparedness in several ways. On this page you will contrast different scenario-based activities - one focused on large scale disasters and another on a more localized emergency. Then you will consider some of the science behind forecasting and modeling potential emergencies, and the geospatial technologies that are being used to develop the capacity ahead of time for situation awareness when disasters do strike. Finally, you will once more contrast large and small scale preparedness activities and the role of geospatial data and analysis by looking at Humanitarian and Disaster Logistics and models for improving building evacuation. So the idea is to think about preparedness as a set of activities with multiple dimensions (spatial and temporal scales) and geospatial analysis as a key tool for managing this complexity. 

Scenario-based Exercises

A highly regarded method for preparing for disasters involves the use of scenarios to conduct realistic exercises to simulate a crisis situation. Using the examples below, contrast live training exercises on small-scale (such as Active Attacker Situations) with those developed by FEMA for large-scale earthquake scenarios. For disasters that provide no advanced warning, using scenarios may be the only way to really prepare in advance. We'll go in-depth on designing scenarios later on in Lesson 7, but for now, read this short article from GovTech about how GIS can help communities prepare for disasters. How effective do you think these activities would be? Could the community be engaged more actively? How do you think things have changed since the GovTech essay? 

FEMA Earthquake Preparedness Scenario

FEMA has developed a wide range of training exercises to aid in disaster preparedness and response. I'd like you to consider the following materials they developed for a catastrophic earthquake in Southern California. Here is their description of this resource. 

Scenario for a Catastrophic Earthquake on the Newport-Inglewood Fault

"Emergency planners use HAZUS-MH to provide realistic catastrophic planning exercises. Over the last several years, FEMA has supported the development of a suite of "priority maps" to support our Federal Response Plan (FRP) partners in preparing for, and responding and recovering from a catastrophic earthquake. A suite of ten priority maps that illustrate the region of strong ground shaking, direct and induced damage, as well as estimated social impacts were developed to provide information for FRP partners within a few hours of an earthquake event. By using the priority maps in regular planning exercises, the FRP partners will become familiar with the map information produced within a few hours of a damaging earthquake." Credit: FEMA

Here is an example of one of the exercise's realistic maps showing casualties. Other realistic geospatial products and other material are produced and presented to participants during the course of the exercise to help prepare emergency managers for real events. When reviewing these materials, do a quick thought experiment and think about all of the different groups involved in a disaster like this. Think about the agencies and organizations involved and the level of coordination required at local, state, and federal levels. We'll consider these issues as we move on through the course. 

map of Los Angeles area showing injuries on the Newport-Inglewood Fault

Catastrophic earthquake scenarios causality map developed for FEMA exercises.
Credit: FEMA

Active Attacker Preparedness Exercises

Preparedness scenario exercises are not just undertaken for large scale, catastrophic events but are increasingly being used in response to local events. One of the clearest examples of this, unfortunately, is the increasing prevalence of active shooter or active attacker drills. These range from training for police to more detailed and realistic exercises involving first responders along with real civilians (including students and teachers) and perpetrators played by actors.

I'd like you to have a look at two example videos. The first one is a news report on a very realistic drill being conducted at a Colorado school. This video provides a pretty good behind the scenes view of how elaborate this training can be. The second item to look at is a more educational-type video produced by Penn State for Students, Faculty, and Staff to help them know what to do during an Active Attacker situation. 

Warning! These videos depict simulated active shooter scenario that some people might find distressing. If you prefer not to watch the video, please reach out to the instructor for alternative media. 

Video: Police Practice Active Shooting Drill at Colorado High School (8:03 minutes)

Police Practice Active Shooting Drill at Colorado High School
Click here for a transcript of the Police Practice Active Shooting Drill video.

DAN HARRIS: Shots fired at a high school. Hostages strapped to explosives. It's a nightmare scenario for law enforcement. How do they respond? Tonight, you're going to see police stage an extraordinary active shooter drill, and it all plays out on camera. Here's ABC'S Clayton Sandell.

CLAYTON SANDELL: Inside this Colorado high school, we are on the front line of one of the most dynamic active shooter drills in the country.


The goal, make it as real and stressful as possible-- gory makeup on victims, fire alarms, heavy smoke, deputies rushing in amid screams and confusion. Their mission? To subdue the shooter as quickly as possible.



Shooter down.

JEFF ENGEL: They're going to have to prioritize, one, what's the priority of life? One is to stop the threat. The second is to start saving lives. Walking wounded. People--

CLAYTON SANDELL: Sergeant Jeff Engel is coordinating today's exercise for the Douglas County Sheriff's Department here in suburban Denver.

JEFF ENGEL: There's got to be that immediacy, that aggressive action, that you need to go in and stop the threat.

CLAYTON SANDELL: With 248 mass shootings this year and counting, his department, and those around the country, are using real life tragedies as a way to prepare. And you incorporated some of Orlando into what you were doing today, right? Tell me what it was you did.

JEFF ENGEL: Having a situation where we had a whole bunch of folks that were surrounded by a device. And how are we going to move people from a place of danger to a place of security?



CLAYTON SANDELL: And this school mere miles from Columbine High.

POLICE OFFICER: Free to move again.

CLAYTON SANDELL: In a region that's seen more than its share of mass shooting tragedy.

PETER JENNINGS: There's been a day of horror in Littleton, Colorado, just south of Denver.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: A terrifying moment in Colorado late Tuesday. A horrific scene east of Denver, where a night at the movies has turned into a nightmare.

JEFF ENGEL: Colorado is kind of the epicenter of these immediate action events and these active killer events.

CLAYTON SANDELL: When Columbine was attacked in 1999, it had long been the policy for officers to wait outside for the SWAT team to arrive, but that 45-minute delay before officers went in was later criticized for allowing the gunmen to continue their killing spree, precious moments lost that might have saved lives.

PARAMEDIC: I was one of the first medics at Columbine. We did have to stand outside, unfortunately, and wait for the building to be cleared before we could go in and find any survivors.

TRAINER: Explosion in an office complex.

CLAYTON SANDELL: Today, training calls for even the most junior cops to immediately take the fight to the bad guy and take him out.

JEFF ENGEL: They want officers, when they come out of the law enforcement academy, would like to have them to have that ability to go in as a single unit, or as a two-person unit, to go in and take care of a threat, because that is the reality.

TRAINER: If you cover me, I'll cuff him.

This is what I signed up for. I'm going to be scared. I know that. But it's all about how you kind of control your emotions, and you kind of funnel that into something that's effective.

CLAYTON SANDELL: Deputy Kristen Tinsley knows the heartache all too well.


CLAYTON SANDELL: She went to Columbine High School.

KRISTEN TINSLEY: We have a lot of very local things that we can go to for experience to train from. It's happened, you know, just miles away.

CLAYTON SANDELL: Today's drill, more than 60 officers and 50 students acting as victims. For Jeremy Finkenbinder, training these teams hits home. When something like Newtown, San Bernardino, Orlando happens, do those things keep you up at night?

JEREMY FINKENBINDER: I think about them quite a bit, I really do. This is my passion.

CLAYTON SANDELL: What's the goal now?

JEREMY FINKENBINDER: The goal now is to be able to render medical aid quickly, to save more lives. That's really what it boils down to. Tip of the spear, my first priority is to get the bad guy terminated. He's out of the equation.

TRAINER: Be aware of your cover and what you guys are moving to. If your partner gets hit, what do you do?

CLAYTON SANDELL: The first scenario of the day begins.

TRAINER: --been reports of two shooters wearing tan pants and black shirts.

KRISTEN TINSLEY: It's like a nervous excitement. It's the anticipation of-- it's like the fear of the unknown. You want to do really well for your teammates and for the people that you're trying to help out.

CLAYTON SANDELL: Tinsley and her team get ready to rush in. The officers navigate through pandemonium.

POLICE OFFICER: Aggressive target.

CLAYTON SANDELL: This is what you call a contact team, three or four officers all working together, moving right to the threat as fast as they can.


They quickly overtake the gunman.

POLICE OFFICER: Shooter down.

CLAYTON SANDELL: But the teams find even simulated chaos comes with real problems, even real wounds.

POLICE OFFICER: And a bad guy, obviously got one off and I took a round as soon as I even came on point.

CLAYTON SANDELL: Plus all that noise drowns out police radios. There's confusion.

POLICE OFFICER: Is that it? Three inside?

CLAYTON SANDELL: And now police have more to worry about.


CLAYTON SANDELL: They must also protect unarmed paramedics moving in right behind them.

JEREMY FINKENBINDER: We'll provide safety for them while they're taking care of business inside and rendering aid.

CLAYTON SANDELL: For the day's final drill, Tinsley and her fellow first responders will deal with a worst case scenario, shots fired at a high school, hostages strapped to explosives. The teams race toward the sound of gunshots, down stairs and hallways, not knowing how many gunmen there are. Just as things are heating up at the high school, another call sending deputies to a different school up the street.

DISPATCHER: We're getting reports of a possible active shooter at middle school.

POLICE OFFICER: 204, 203, we copy.

CLAYTON SANDELL: Two deputies head in alone, no time to wait for backup. Inside, helpless victims, one student chained to a bomb. But these cops know their first priority is to eliminate the threat.

POLICE OFFICER: Where is he?

CLAYTON SANDELL: A shooter in a first floor bathroom.


POLICE OFFICER: Come out with your hands up.

POLICE OFFICER: Come on, come out with your hands up.

CLAYTON SANDELL: But just as the officer tries to take that final shot, her gun jams. Their backup arrives just in time.

POLICE OFFICER: All right, so they're pinned down by the bathroom taking shots. Is he by himself, or does he have a hostage in there? Do we move? Do we hold?

POLICE OFFICER: Is he in there by himself, do you know?

POLICE OFFICER: I think so. I don't know.


POLICE OFFICER: Suspect down.


One suspect down.

CLAYTON SANDELL: But upstairs, a surprise second shooter.

POLICE OFFICER: Drop the weapon.



CLAYTON SANDELL: Officers quickly take him down.

POLICE OFFICER: He is out of play. He is out of play.

CLAYTON SANDELL: When it's all over, they talk about what went right and what went wrong.

JEFF ENGEL: Who identified themselves as the tactical supervisor? If no tactical supervisor's there, how chaotic would it be? I mean, how chaotic is it with a tactical supervisor? Now imagine without. So there needs to be-- try to get that command and control.

CLAYTON SANDELL: As jarring as the day was, Sergeant Engel hopes the day has given his troops a taste for the real thing.

JEFF ENGEL: You had some IEDs. You had multiple threats. We had multiple engagements. We had compromised entry points. I mean, those things are coming this way. That's what truly does scare me.

CLAYTON SANDELL: You think it's coming this way. I mean, it's--

JEFF ENGEL: Oh, it's here.

CLAYTON SANDELL: He knows the harsh reality for Kristen Tinsley and her fellow cops. It's not a matter of if she'll use what she learned today, but when.

KRISTEN TINSLEY: I'm going to feel a heck of a lot more prepared than I did coming into today, that's for sure. I mean, you're still going to have all the different emotions of the unknown and everything, but at least I have some sort of base to build on now.

JEREMY FINKENBINDER: Everybody's got to be ready, no matter-- first day on the job to the guy that's going to retire next week, we want them all to be ready, because you know, a warrior's a warrior, and it never quits.

CLAYTON SANDELL: For Nightline, I'm Clayton Sandell in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.


Credit: ABC News

Video: Run, Hide, Fight - Surviving an Active Attacker (6:42 minutes)

Click here for a transcript of the Run, Hide, Fight - Surviving an Active Attacker video.


Instuctor walking around a classroom: Less than a minute to finish up, folks. What have you got?






CHRIS: We can't stay. We need to go.

SPEAKER 2: Where we gonna go?

CHRIS: I don't know. We just need to go.


PRESENTER: What would you do if you learned that there was a bombing on campus?

SPEAKER 3: Explosion or something. I don't know. I don't know.

PRESENTER: How would you react if you heard gunshots coming from outside your classroom? Or worse yet, what if someone with a knife or a gun came into your classroom or office and began to attack?


To help us remember the options available to you, let's use the phrase "run, hide, fight." Have an escape route in mind. Find a place to hide. If necessary, fight the attacker as a last resort.

SPEAKER 4: Where did that come from?

SPEAKER 5: I don't know.

SPEAKER 6: Shots fired.

SPEAKER 7: Shots?

SPEAKER 5: Oh my god. I don't know.

SPEAKER 4: Chris is right. We need to go.

SPEAKER 8: Come on, let's go.


CHRIS: I think we're clear. Let's go.

PRESENTER: One option you have is to run for an exit. Get away from the attacker. Run in the opposite direction. Get out of the area and find a safe place as soon as possible.


CHRIS: OK, let's go.






PRESENTER: Once you feel that you're in a safe place, alert the authorities. Call 911. Just remember to first get somewhere safe.

CHRIS: I think we're safe, but you need to call the police.

SPEAKER 8: Yeah.

SPEAKER 9 (ON PHONE): University police. Where is your emergency?

SPEAKER 8: There was an explosion. And heard gunshots.

PRESENTER: Don't assume someone else has already called 911. Provide the operator with as many details of the situation as you can.

SPEAKER 10: I think there are two shooters in the building.

PRESENTER: Don't call anyone else. The 911 operator may want to call you back for further information.

SPEAKER 11: We need help. Please hurry.

PRESENTER: Another option you have is to find a place to hide from the attackers.

SPEAKER 12: Shooters in the building. Find a place to hide.

PRESENTER: If the room appears to be empty, there's a better chance the attacker will simply pass it by. If you choose to hide, be sure to lock and barricade the door. Use whatever you can find to block the door to prevent the attacker from coming in.










If the attacker has entered your immediate vicinity and there's no way out, you need to be prepared to end the threat and fight the intruder.

SPEAKER 4: We're trapped!


SPEAKER 13: Threat forward. Threat forward. Turn right. Right down, break off for cover. Put your hands on your head. Put your hands on your head.

PRESENTER: Remember-- run, hide, fight. No one wants to be involved in an active attacker situation, but these incidents do happen on and off campus. If you take a moment to think through how you would act, you will increase your chances of survival. Commit to taking action. If you're ever caught in an active attacker situation, now you know just what to do.


Credit: Penn State University