When members of the North Carolina Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response (PHP&R) received the call from Florida and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials to conduct a rapid needs assessment (RNA) after Hurricane Wilma cut a swath of destruction across south Florida, they deployed immediately, armed with mobile GIS. RNA is a methodology developed by the CDC and the World Health Organization for collecting health needs field information during disasters. Within 24 hours of deployment, 11 teams were trained and deployed in the field to conduct the first of two public health RNAs in areas most impacted by the storm.

The first RNA took place in northern Broward County. The CDC determined the assessment area by using a scientific cluster sampling of census blocks to assess public health needs. ESRI's ArcView software running on an Intel-powered laptop was used to generate 220 random points in these designated census blocks. These random locations were then loaded onto Dell Axim X50v handheld computers equipped with Globalsat CF GPS cards. The handhelds were installed with ESRI's ArcPad and ArcPad StreetMap software, along with a custom RNA application developed by Bradshaw Consulting Services Inc. (BCS), an ESRI business partner in Aiken, S.C. Field teams would navigate by GPS to each assigned stop using routes generated by ArcPad StreetMap, visually locate the nearest house, capture the GPS location of the house and conduct the questionnaire.

"ESRI's ArcPad software was the perfect solution for conducting rapid needs assessments because GIS base maps are easily loaded and utilized for situational awareness in areas that have been devastated by natural disasters," said Joey Wilson, mobile technologies manager at BCS. "The customized interface provides digital forms and pick-lists to simplify data entry and ease of use for the field interviewers. It was simple to learn and to synchronize lots of data with their geodatabase."

The second assessment occurred in a small rural community in Hendry County near the Florida Everglades. A sampling of nearly 100 residents was processed using a random selection of GIS tax parcels. Field teams navigated to each parcel, conducted the assessment interviews and returned to field headquarters where all the data was compiled and delivered to the CDC in a digital GIS database. For each household, the interviewer collected relevant attribute information, such as home damage, illnesses or injuries, availability of food, drinking water, medication and utilities since the hurricane.

"PHP&R needed a more efficient process for conducting assessments in the field," said Wilson. "A lot of time was spent filling out paper forms and re-entering this data back in the office. With the use of mobile GIS, field interviewers are able to increase their mobility and decrease the amount of paperwork during the assessment."

Previously PHP&R staff collected RNA information in the field with pencil and paper using standardized paper forms. This data was manually input into spreadsheets and drawn onto paper maps. Wilson and his team assisted PHP&R in designing a customized RNA-specific mobile government solution.

Three days after deployment, all surveys were completed, uploaded from each PDA to a master geodatabase, and delivered to Stacy Young of the Disaster Epidemiology and Assessment Team with CDC for statistical calculations in SAS. "This means important information that can help guide relief efforts is more quickly relayed to emergency managers," said Young.

"Officials from both the Florida Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were very pleased and impressed with North Carolina

Public Health's expert capabilities including personnel and their equipment," said Ron Burger, senior emergency coordinator for the CDC. "I was fortunate to be on the inauguration of the development of this Community Rapid Needs Assessment in 1992 with the response to Hurricane Andrew in the Miami area. It worked extremely well and was very useful even back then, but was logistically difficult; however, now with this mobile GIS capability in the hands of such well trained personnel, the CRNA is a vital public health tool that is extremely vital to emergency managers to assist them with emergency response and recovery efforts."

"Critical information that used to take several days to record and distribute can seamlessly be collected and distributed without redundant efforts," said Mark

Smith, Ph.D., epidemiologist for the Guilford County Department of Health and project coordinator for the mobile GIS project. "With GIS, NC PHP&R is able to rapidly deploy, collect, disseminate and analyze information more efficiently than ever."