Local Fire Sparks GIS System

Laguna Beach, Calif. continues to expand its extensive geographic information system that launched after a fire in 1993.

by / October 31, 2002
Adversity can inspire innovation. Laguna Beach, an idyllic seaside city in Southern California, continues to build on an extensive GIS application launched after a devastating fire in October 1993, which destroyed more than 300 homes. The past year, in particular, has showcased many applications that were developed in response to a crisis.

"We needed a system that could help in the rebuilding process," said John Montgomery, assistant director of the Community Development Department. "That was really the impetus to get us involved in GIS."

Laguna Beach has some unique characteristics that complicate planning and development. The sandstone soils and soft cliffs are prone to erosion, and environmental-protection issues play a major role in construction projects. GIS maps gave city planners and policy-makers detailed information that was previously difficult to access.

"Anyone in the city could click on a parcel and get information," Montgomery said, adding that employees didn't need special training to use the application because it is browser-based. "Everyone can use a browser. You just open and click."

The application proved so popular, it was soon adopted by emergency services providers and by the Community Development Department.

"Once we put it on the browser everyone started to use it, and it has become almost a mandatory tool for everyone in the city," Montgomery said. "The city manager uses it, the city council, police dispatch; fire uses it to build their catalog of response maps."

Facilities-management staff also discovered that GIS maps are useful in tracking pavement repairs, tree maintenance and other routine tasks. Montgomery said that GIS slowly permeated most of city operations.

It didn't take long for the conveniences of GIS mapping and data to migrate from the city's intranet to the Internet.

"The City Council wanted staff to upgrade their Web site, and we added GIS access for the public," Montgomery explained.

Maps provide information about zoning, parcel characteristics, trails in regional and state parks, and city planning regulations. There is also a "constraint" map that shows faults, flood plains and biological habitats.

"We have a lot of hillsides that have a bad geological composition, and on every project they require a geological report and a peer review," Montgomery said. "GIS can show at least where the minor fault areas are and what the historical problems are."

Montgomery explained that, even though the city has "high build-out," there is strong redevelopment activity because many of the homes were built in the 1920s. As a result of the historic nature of such homes, sensitivities about the character of the community run hot.

"It's a pretty sophisticated community here in Orange County," Montgomery said. "I think there are a high number of citizens who have computers in their homes. They want everything on the Internet. There is a high level of education, and they expect a lot from their public servants."

Access to GIS mapping and data was a natural service to offer the population of about 25,000, but without a high-speed connection, maps are often slow to load. To address this challenge, the city integrated compression technology into its GIS services.

AirZip, based in Cupertino, Calif., partnered with GIS provider ESRI to develop the kind of speed that would satisfy Laguna Beach's users.

"Half of the data being sent around is images that are very big," said AirZip Marketing Director Doug Keiller. "We set out to find a way to reduce those file sizes, save money and be more productive."

The application installs on the Web server and does not require the user to have any special software. It is a cross-platform application that can be used on PCs, mobile phones and wireless devices.

"When the Web server serves up the content, we look for the images, compress them and send them to the client device through the Web server," Keiller said. "It is all in real time."

He said that Laguna Beach is an ideal showcase for the technology.

"They have a strong need for GIS because of the complexities of developing there, and they have been very progressive about [using] GIS," he said. "This really streamlines their operations. Laguna Beach is really an exciting experiment."

Montgomery's challenge is to satisfy high expectations with minimal resources. Including police and fire personnel, there are only 230 employees on the city's payroll.

"Our entire network was essentially done by one person - now two," Montgomergy said. "We are doing a lot without a lot of human resources."

Nonetheless, he is planning on rolling out more GIS services.

"A lot of local governments have an issue with historical records, and many are getting into scanning those records," he explained. "We are going to integrate GIS so when you click on a parcel you can pull up historical records or images. It should be intuitive - click on the parcel and the map is there. They won't have to come and ask for an address file and leaf through it. They will be able to do it through the city's network and on the Internet."
Darby Patterson Editor in Chief