Twice a year, the small city of Dover, Del., is overrun by approximately 250,000 people. They come from all over the Eastern seaboard to spend five days in Delaware's capital, setting up temporary shelters everywhere. Parking lots become tent cities, and thousands of RVs rumble through the streets.

What sporting event transforms this small city into a weekend metropolis? Think high speed, high energy and a lot of left turns.

Every June and September, the Monster Mile at the Dover International Speedway is ground zero for the fastest growing sports spectacle in the nation - National Associate for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). NASCAR races draw a lot of fans: The track in Dover seats 140,000 spectators. That number doesn't include the additional thousands who fill the track's infield - the area the racetrack encircles. 

For a city the size of Dover, public safety resources become severely overtaxed when NASCAR comes to town. Aside from the sheer number of people public safety personnel must handle, race attendees are more than festive. For years, first responders relied on antiquated methods for emergency management - everything from paper maps riddled with pushpins to driving an ambulance around makeshift campgrounds trying to find a reported injury. But in 2006, a few city employees took existing resources and transformed the way Dover manages race weekends.

GIS Test Drive

Dover Fire Marshal David Truax was looking for a change. He knew there was a better way to deploy his resources to protect and serve the throngs of NASCAR fans. So Truax contacted Mark Nowak, Dover's GIS coordinator, to see if they could devise a plan.

"He said he would like to see how GIS technology can help the race," Nowak recalled. "So I looked at what they had going when it came to their command post. Then I took tours of the different campgrounds. [We] drove through, and they showed me the problems and issues, and asked if GIS could help their planning. I told them it could."

Nowak explained that the core challenges faced by Dover public safety came from the campground areas. During NASCAR events, "campground" is a loose designation - it could be anything from a traditional facility with roads and spaces to a Lowe's parking lot stuffed haphazardly with racing revelers eager to display their enthusiasm. Patrolling and responding to makeshift camps is hard enough. Unfortunately there weren't many maps for most of the traditional campsites.

"There are multiple campgrounds that we have, traditional and nontraditional," Nowak said. "Traditional campgrounds are basically campgrounds out in the woods, or a field and they really had no mapping of them at all. If there was a phone call or 911 got a call from someone saying they're in campground 10 ... well, there could be 500 campers there."

As the city's GIS coordinator, Nowak told the fire marshal he had some ESRI GIS software and some GPS-enabled hardware. Without having to purchase any additional equipment, Nowak began writing a mobile GIS application to help public safety officials improve their emergency response capability. Utilizing ArcPad software, a laptop computer and a Trimble ProXT GPS receiver, the fire marshal had detailed maps available to him that could be updated in real time with mission-critical information.

During the September 2006 race, the system was immediately put to the test when a camper vehicle exploded.

"At the last race," Nowak said, "a camper blew up because of a propane leak. When the fire marshal heard that over the radio, he was able to type in the name of the camp road the phone call came from, and it highlighted the camp road on his laptop so

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.