Helping Hands

GIS played a critical role in the aftermath of September's terrorist attacks.

by / April 16, 2002
Disaster on a large scale is hard to envision. Even those whose job it is to plan for catastrophic events have a difficult time comprehending the magnitude of damage that might occur and the many ways in which carefully formulated scenarios can go awry.
The tragic events of Sept. 11 have given a new face to disaster. Communities throughout the United States suddenly and sadly have the ability to envision how their procedures, infrastructure and planned responses can be disrupted. At the same time, they have seen how GIS can play a crucial role in response, as was demonstrated both in Manhattan and at the Pentagon.
Following the terrorist attacks, GIS companies were on site at or near ground zero to assist in damage assessment, development of evacuation plans and mapping of critical resources. GIS helped get responders to specific sites and aided in identifying and locating areas of interest for rescue and recovery teams. An Emergency Command Center was set up at Pier 92 and personnel from various companies handled requests from the field and provided rapid response data. "You are not thinking about competition or rivalry," said Sean Davies of Intergraph Corp. "You are really overwhelmed by what has occurred. I guess what struck me was how people pulled together."

A Multi-Purpose Tool
Getting transportation moving again was critical to response efforts. With subway tunnels destroyed, roads closed and normal transit routes disrupted, New York City was able to integrate data from several city departments into a single map, using software from Intergraph. "We were able to help people make better-informed decisions on how to restore and rebuild transportation routes," said Bob McIntyre of Intergraph, who arrived on the scene within days of the disaster. "We were helping to create maps that helped rescue workers know where to look for subway entrances and water mains under all the rubble."
A civil engineering unit from the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) helped position planes hovering above the site. Equipped with advanced LIDAR (light detection and ranging system) technology, working in concert with GPS, the planes provided data from which three-dimensional digital aerial images and maps were produced. Recovery crews on the ground used the maps to assess damage and assist in orchestrating the clean up. According to Joshua Greenfeld, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at NJIT, this system employs the same basic technology used for the past two years to monitor the earth's crust for earthquakes.
The New York State Technology Office used GIS to provide other state officials with information on where every state office was located in Manhattan. State officials also deployed databases to track volunteers and to provide information to blood donors and those seeking to donate money or supplies.
In Washington, D.C., a GIS-based 911 Communications Center open only since last June was put to the ultimate test. The system, which supports police, fire and EMS agencies in the district, had 66 terminals set up to dispatch police and fire units, communicate with them and track their locations using global positioning satellites. With the flood of calls coming in, 10 more terminals were set up in a training center so they could be used for taking 911 calls and dispatching. In addition, 200 more terminals around the city, most at an emergency command center staffed by Secret Service, city police, capitol police and other emergency agencies, were monitoring the emergency response via the Internet.
According to Intergraph Public Safety resident engineers at the center who assisted in taking and dispatching the 911 calls, "The system was stressed and it didn't even blink."

Expanded Role for GIS
Richard Greene, professor of geography at Northern Illinois University and a GIS specialist, believes that the Sept. 11 attacks will cause local and state authorities to revisit their opinions about GIS in general. "I think you are going to see pressure on local governments to provide systems that represent an appropriate response to terrorist actions, including bioterrorism," Greene said. "Anything that a terrorist can influence will need to be added to the database at the local level. What we saw in New York was a convincing demonstration of how GIS can provide a quick and flexible response to a wide range of emergency situations. We saw new ways of dealing with disaster recovery. GIS became a crucial tool in helping put together what ground zero looked like, so workers could focus and manage their effort accordingly."
"We are all re-evaluating the need to collect information that can be shared among various departments - and there is a new sense of urgency," said Rob Bennett, president of Municipal Software. "The attack has crystallized the importance of having fast access to accurate information that decision makers need. We have seen in an indelible way that GIS has a role to play in helping local and state governments plan, prepare, respond and recover."