FEMA's Mapping No Longer A Disaster

Software makes interactive mapping accessible to emergency managers via the Web.

by / September 30, 1999
The integration of GIS into mainstream management information systems is accelerating. Advances in software are making the technology accessible to a wider range of users and applications in business, industry and government. Two recent developments driving this process are the Oracle 8i database with the spatial feature, and the Java edition of MapXtreme from MapInfo. The two software technologies are the main components of the Spatial Internet Solution (SIS), the first complete, nonproprietary Java spatial solution for the Internet.

According to MapInfo's Brian Lantz, SIS eliminates the barriers of cost, complexity and proprietary constraints that have, until recently, impeded the integration of spatial data with other enterprise data.

In With the New

At the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Mapping and Analysis Center (MAC), director Ed Corvi said MAC is acquiring SIS to give client offices, emergency teams and disaster field offices (DFOs) direct intranet access to comprehensive geographic data with interactive mapping and spatial-analysis capabilities.

Before actually implementing SIS, however, MAC is running tests with the software to confirm its effectiveness in supporting FEMA response and recovery operations. Some testing will take place under actual emergency conditions. Tests will be conducted using Oracle 8i Spatial, MapXtreme and MapInfo Professional GIS. Oracle 8i allows users to access spatial data with standard structured query language (SQL) and store the data inside an Oracle Universal Server. The spatial option in 8i will let MAC staff track and manage spatial data while ensuring its integrity and performance.

MapXtreme Java is an Internet/intranet server that delivers maps to a standard browser and runs on any platform that has a Java Virtual Machine. It supports interactive mapping, spatial analysis and address-coordinate matching. MapInfo Pro, a full-featured GIS, is FEMA's current desktop-mapping standard. In combination with Oracle 8i and MapXtreme, it provides the MAC with a complete suite of GIS mapping capabilities.

MAC Support

The MAC provides client offices, emergency teams and DFOs with GIS support and coordination, and deploys mapping products and related data during disaster response and recovery operations. Geographic and demographic data assist emergency managers in the field and at the national level in making critical decisions. To date, however, the MAC has been limited to a flat-file database. It enables the center provide a full range of GIS support capabilities, and enables distribution of only hard-copy and static JPEG maps. "The maps can be viewed, printed and downloaded," said Corvi, "but they can't be changed, except by the MAC staff using MapInfo Professional."

Corvi said that in current disaster situations, DFOs could either rely on remote GIS support from the MAC at FEMA headquarters or request the MAC to ship them key GIS equipment. "We have suites of equipment in transit cases that we can send out, and on-call contractors who will set up the equipment when it arrives and do mapping production for the DFO." He added that SIS would enable emergency managers in the field to directly access interactive maps and related data by logging on to a MAC MapXtreme intranet site from the nearest Web-enabled PC. The expectation is that SIS will greatly minimize the need to transport major GIS hardware to field offices.

Testing and Transition

Corvi explained that migrating the existing MAC database to Oracle 8i will provide better database management for the MAC. "SIS will enable emergency managers to analyze the data with interactive mapping, customize it, and print maps to help them with their decision-making. Since DFOs will have direct access to the data they need, the MAC will not have to ship equipment out to sites as often. That in itself will be a considerable savings in time and money." Corvi added that the MAC can also make selected data relating to disaster response and recovery available to the public on FEMA's Web site.

The present MAC database structure is on a UNIX server. However, Corvi said SIS testing will be carried out using an NT server and Windows 95 and NT client platforms. "Once the system is set up, it will be accessible using an Internet browser and Windows 95, our current PC-client standard."

Lantz stressed that implementing SIS will not require anything new of FEMA's MIS users, "Since spatial data can now be accessed with SQL in the same manner as other enterprise data, it doesn't have to be treated like a foreign entity. Nor does the spatial data necessarily require a separate map-visualization tool. It can be accessed by Excel and other applications that reside on the network in a standard open format."

MAC testing of the SIS is being conducted in several steps, beginning with the migration of the existing flat-file database to Oracle 8i. Corvi explained that the first step will be to convert base data and data from a past disaster operation to an Oracle 8i test database. "Then, with a prototype MapXtreme application, we will see how quickly and accurately we can access, query and analyze the data using interactive mapping. We will also work with our client departments, emergency teams and DFO's to develop an interactive mapping site that best meet their needs."

Corvi added that in disaster situations, emergency teams from FEMA and several other federal agencies have many areas of responsibility. "Each one would work with browser-based mappings, customizing them to support decision making in their respective areas."

While testing and prototyping was slated to begin in late August, Corvi emphasized that no major changes will be made to existing operations until after the storm season passes. "I would like us to be comfortable with all this new technology and know how we're going to use it. With an interactive mapping site, we will have to structure our center to ensure fast access to that site, and decide on how we are going to use it. We will run a whole series of tests. Once we have the results, we'll have a clear picture of how these applications will change our operations. Then we'll plan the implementation."


Bill McGarigle is a writer specializing in communications and information technology. He is based in Santa Cruz, Calif. E-mail