Disaster Planning

Kentucky's Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program turned to GIS to improve emergency planning.

by / June 3, 2004
In the 10 Kentucky counties surrounding the Blue Grass Army Depot -- where chemical weapons, such as mustard gas, VX nerve agent and GB (sarin), dating back to the 1940s are stored until their destruction -- officials responsible for emergency preparedness once relied on enlarged and laminated county highway maps to prepare for a possible release incident.

Using a phased approach, the Kentucky Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (KY CSEPP) affordably implemented a GIS that allows officers to quickly and easily obtain information such as evacuation routes and nearby medical facilities.

In late 2001, with an investment of less than $40,000 from FEMA, officials from the KY CSEPP, part of the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management, started developing computerized maps of the almost 3,000 square-mile area around the depot.

Like many small- to moderate-sized communities, the KY CSEPP had little if any digital data and limited funding, so it chose to build its GIS in four phases.

Getting Started
In the first phase, the KY CSEPP chose PlanGraphics, a geospatial consulting firm based in Frankfort, Ky., to build the GIS, and then acquired computer and printing hardware, and ESRI's ArcView GIS software.

The KY CSEPP then asked PlanGraphics to assess data availability and gather necessary geographic data from various sources to develop base maps for each county.

The individual counties' thematic, one-meter aerial photos, 10-meter SPOT satellite imagery and topographic base maps were assembled into a consistent regional base. Fortunately the Kentucky Office of Geographic Information already had most of the raster data PlanGraphics needed to prepare imagery and topographic base maps.

The last step of phase one was a comprehensive survey conducted by PlanGraphics to determine if digital data on important resources like schools, hospitals, shelters and public safety assets existed in the 10 individual counties.

To no one's surprise, the data was virtually nonexistent, especially in the region's predominantly rural counties.

Pooling the Data
Data is always the most important -- and almost always the most expensive -- component of any GIS development project, and the KY CSEPP project didn't disprove those time-tested facts.

During the second phase, the KY CSEPP used PlanGraphics to design a detailed database for 65 non-base-map layers in 10 categories including evacuation origins, such as schools; public safety, medical and evacuation resources; utility and transportation networks; and political and administrative boundaries.

If an incident occurs, officials must decide to shelter residents in place or evacuate a potentially large number of people to safe shelter sites. Therefore, the KY CSEPP needs many detailed data sets.

As PlanGraphics began building the KY CSEPP's GIS, it uncovered several novel data sources. The Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure keeps records of all licensed physicians and physician assistants, which were obtained and used to populate attribute databases. They also helped locate approximately 2,000 MDs and physician assistants on the GIS maps.

Similar data sets were found for pharmacies, veterinarians, daycare centers, assisted living and long-term care centers, and group foster-care facilities, among others. A lot of necessary information had to be converted from hard copy.

Because the state didn't have a master address database for its 120 counties, the KY CSEPP purchased addressing software from Geographic Data Technology Inc. (GDT) to geo-code locations with situs addresses.

In addition, county CSEPP and local public safety staff identified known locations on one-meter digital ortho photography for digitizing, and provided GPS coordinates for a number of other features, such as emergency landing zones.

Local public safety and emergency management personnel were incredibly knowledgeable and helpful in building the GIS database. Local participation in the development effort is essential to build ownership and trust among individuals who will provide future data updates and use the GIS locally.

After collecting and processing the data, and populating the GIS database, PlanGraphics developed an ArcView Project -- a file for organizing work -- that gave users an interface designed specifically for non-GIS professionals.

This GIS had to be user-friendly. The two opening application screens let users pick the type of data and counties to display by answering several basic questions and clicking a few buttons.

Expanding the GIS
As we gained experience and became comfortable with the GIS, we wanted to use it to do more, including making it available to others.

For the third phase, PlanGraphics added customized functionality to the ArcView Project and developed a secure Internet site for access to the GIS from the field, the Blue Grass Army Depot, 10 county emergency operations centers, FEMA Region IV in Atlanta, and the U.S. Army's CSEPP Office in Washington, D.C.

PlanGraphics was asked to augment the ArcView Project to enable the KY CSEPP to more quickly conduct analyses typically performed for planning and used during incident response. First, a customized search capability was developed to search the database by facility name, type or location within a boundary feature, such as immediate response zones, cities, counties or census tracts.

Second, several different buffering routines that find features, such as highways and rivers, by proximity were programmed. Finally the ability to search for an XY location, buffer the coordinate position, and find and identify features within the selected area was added.

The GIS was so popular the KY CSEPP was producing and sending out dozens of maps each week. Sometimes they even went to non-CSEPP agencies that just wanted access to the map information.

The KY CSEPP intended to install the GIS mapping project in all 10 counties from the start, as well as in other state and federal agency locations, so due to cost, ESRI's ArcIMS solution was chosen. This solution would make the data and maps available over the Internet. Using ArcIMS also kept the GIS database synchronized.

After purchasing and installing a dedicated server and the ArcIMS software for the KY CSEPP, PlanGraphics converted the ArcView Project to an Internet mapping application that provides all the functionality that was previously developed.

The secure application is being placed online and tested by all users before full rollout. PlanGraphics also is preparing a database maintenance strategy for keeping the GIS current.

What's Next
The KY CSEPP has moved well beyond black-and-white highway maps, but there is still much more to accomplish.

The next step will be to integrate the GIS with functions such as chemical sensor monitoring, plume modeling, evacuation routing, alert call notification and traffic video surveillance.

PlanGraphics developed an interoperability architecture called STEPs (Spatial Templates for Emergency Preparedness), and we are jointly pursuing funding for it.

All users can also just as easily apply the GIS to other types of emergency preparedness and response hazards. Even if the KY CSEPP mapping project were to progress no further, there is dramatic improvement in planning for and responding to an incident at the depot, no matter how unlikely.

Bill Hilling is the planning project supervisor for the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management's Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program.
Bill Hilling Contributing Writer