Russ Johnson Talks Esri and All Things GIS

How GIS supports response and recovery, and how Esri plugs into disasters.

by / November 7, 2011
Photos and image courtesy of Esri Esri

Some organizations must be implementing social media within the Incident Command System (ICS). What have you observed as to where they utilize social media? Is it only in the public information function, or elsewhere?

Geospatial capabilities have proven their value to support incident management, particularly in an ICS context. With that said, it has largely been GIS desktop applications and hard copy map production supporting incident operations driven by a trained and qualified GIS technician. Web applications have largely been focused on providing public information and general situational awareness through a common operating picture. We have begun to see some interesting changes in this pattern.

During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Web-based geospatial viewers were configured and implemented to support specific missions. Viewers supported logistics, operations, command and public information — each built on top of the same geospatial platform with the appropriate data and tools to support different missions. Recently at the New Madrid National Level Exercise, additional geospatial viewers were developed for emergency support functions (ESF). Each relevant ESF had a geospatial viewer focused on impacts and requirements relative to status, disruptions, damage and mitigation needs.

Social media has the potential to provide timely information for all aspects of the emergency response function. Social media may be providing valuable data to support incident operations as circumstances change. If social media is providing information (particularly if there are multiple sources that help validate social media coming in) of changing circumstances on the incident, it may be appropriate to divert resources if the issue is critical. Obviously there is a danger in making rapid changes to an incident action plan, but we often do that on the incident as it changes anyway. Having another source(s) of information may alert us to critical issues that otherwise would not be immediately available.

A few organizations have tried using social media as one means for warning people. Do you have an opinion on this creative use of the medium for that purpose?

I think providing warnings that are under a prescriptive policy are valid. There are geographically based reverse type 911 systems in use today, where people are alerted to unfolding events and given recommended actions.

Social media is another form of being able to extend these capabilities if people choose to opt in by following an emergency management organization. Social media requires people to search for information or identify a person or organization to follow. Organizations have to determine what policy or programs they want to implement based upon a social media platform.

With that said, social media is another way to provide notifications for emergencies by location or a geographic area. In turn, recipients in the area can provide social media back to the center with observations and reports.

For big events, like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Esri deploys staff to assist with the mapping function. How is staff integrated into the larger disaster response network and where do you typically “plug into” the disaster response?

Typically Esri implements an ICS-like team at [headquarters in] Redlands, Calif., to support complex emergencies automatically. This may involve standing up a situational awareness viewer, a public information sight with social media, providing free software, data or technical support. Local Esri staff reach out to local users to see if they need assistance. We are careful to try and assist and not “get in the way.” We may host a mapping site [that] the local emergency management personnel are using or republishing. We may provide technical support for agencies to stand up. We may be on-site at an incident command post to provide assistance to generate incident action plans; or assist field personnel with mobile damage assessment applications. Our goal is to support our public safety customers in any way we can. Where we plug in depends on the incident, the customer and the specific needs or capabilities the user agency has in place.

What future evolutions of mapping do you see coming soon, and what longer-term developments do you see on the horizon?

We have discussed the use of social media, and we continue to work on tools and resources to support more effective use of GIS tools that make social media more actionable and understandable. We are developing Web-based viewers that align with the ICS roles and ESFs. Our goal is provide many of these viewers and GIS tools as downloadable resources that will extend the geospatial platform to better support emergency management workflows and mission requirements. We will continue to develop mobile applications that can be downloaded to support more detailed damage assessment and obtain situational awareness in the field. Our free ArcGIS Online capabilities will continue to expand to provide data sharing, private groups and access to applications, links to data, and other emergency management resources.
Eric Holdeman Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.

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