Though voice communications have been the focus of interoperability funding since 9/11, state homeland security programs are beginning to expand their focus to include data and information. The National Governors Association identified interoperable communications as the top priority for fiscal 2007.

Interoperability has typically been interpreted as -- and grant funding has typically been spent on -- voice communications, such as radios and related equipment. However, in fiscal 2007 the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began placing greater emphasis on data, including geospatial data and information interoperability, as well as the tools to move data between municipal departments, communities and other agencies and entities, such as hospitals, blood banks, and human and animal shelters.

The doctrine of the National Response Framework calls for common organizational structures and capabilities that are scalable, flexible and adaptable for diverse operations, and facilitate interoperability and improve operational coordination. As DHS funding resources decrease and the emphasis shifts from purchasing products to planning and preparedness, the value of information sharing becomes vital.

All disasters are local, and initial response requires local resources. Therefore, local information and locally managed interoperable information systems are critical assets for disaster planning, preparedness, response and recovery. Most data needed during a disaster or emergency is geospatial. In providing for homeland security, location is of paramount importance. The first questions typically asked are:

o Where is it?

o What's in the area that I need to know about?

o How do I get there?

The central conclusion of the 2007 National Academy of Sciences report Successful Response Starts with a Map: Improving Geospatial Support for Disaster Management is that geospatial data and tools should be an essential part of all emergency management aspects -- from events planning, through response and recovery, to the mitigation of future events.

The DHS recognizes the important contribution that geospatial information and technology play in emergency management and disaster response. Federal, state and local organizations have increasingly incorporated geospatial data, information and technologies as emergency management tools and homeland security applications. Geospatial systems improve the overall capability of IT applications and systems to enhance public security and emergency preparedness and efficient response to all hazards, including natural and manmade disasters.

State homeland security strategy plans often include objectives that strive for enhancement of GIS capabilities in support of the all-hazards approach. As part of the incident management tool set, GIS allows emergency managers to quickly and accurately visualize patterns of activity, map locations, model potential hazards and put emergency situations into geospatial context. Communities across the United States have or are building GIS capability, resulting in essential geospatial data resources. This is a critical asset for preparedness, planning, response, situation awareness, resource asset status and tracking, decision support and disaster recovery.

Interoperability is the ability of two or more systems (and the people and functions they support) to share data and tools effectively and seamlessly, independent of location, data models, technology platform, terminologies, etc. Interoperable communications are essential elements of planning, preparedness, response and recovery, so those who need the information receive it, at the right time and in the correct format. For example, in establishing Massachusetts' State Interoperability Executive Committee via Executive Order 493, Gov. Deval Patrick recognized the need to "Enable emergency response agencies and other stakeholders to exchange critical communications and data with one another, permitting them to work together effectively and efficiently to prevent, respond to and recover from domestic incidents, regardless of cause, size or complexity."

The lack of consistent policy for collaboration, together with protocols and structures for coordination and communication, has long been a challenge to effective collaboration, sharing and reuse of geospatial data and tools

Ric Skinner  |  Contributing Writer
Ric Skinner, GIS professional, is an independent health-care preparedness and health geographics consultant doing business as The Stoneybrook Group in Sturbridge, Mass. Links: and