GIS-Based Interoperability System Alters How Virginia Manages Emergencies

An information-sharing system provides the state with a common operating picture during disasters while aiding a national pilot to capitalize on the power of GIS data.

by Jessica Hughes / October 25, 2010
Officials conduct a preliminary damage assessment in Suffolk, Va., following a tornado in May 2008. Photo courtesy of Liz Roll/FEMA. Liz Roll/FEMA

It’s easy to quantify success more than two years after the Virginia Interoperability Picture for Emergency Response (VIPER) system first made its mark in the information-sharing world — just look at the handful of innovation awards, its role as a model for a national interoperability initiative, and even VIPER on YouTube.

But the real story is how VIPER, which displays real-time geospatial information, has changed the not-so-easily quantifiable — essentially altering how the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) manages emergencies.

VIPER is more than just a moving map. Its data scope and analytics capabilities present operational questions — and agile and creative minds are needed to answer them, said Harry Colestock III, the department’s director of operations.

Department operators use VIPER at the state’s Emergency Operations Center to monitor a day-to-day standard picture, and also during disasters to assess unfolding events, deploy personnel and equipment, and update data from the field or command center.

VIPER has encouraged its users to make important connections: staff scaling up and down during an incident, assessing vulnerable infrastructure and finding shelter for people. Through VIPER, responders assess the wider situation and its link to people, places and the environment.

In the Community 

VIPER is a Web-based GIS enterprise platform that uses existing information — such as live feeds from diverse sources like traffic cameras, social networking sites, photographs and National Weather Service data — to display dynamic relationships in context. VIPER brings emergency commanders and first responders, as well as local, state and federal stakeholders, before the same geospatial images and information.

“When you’re looking at real pieces of information, you’re able to adjust how to respond,” said Brian Crumpler, GIS manager for VDEM. “How you respond is based on those other real-time events that happen.”

In creating VIPER, the department partnered with Esri, a Redlands, Calif.-based GIS company; department users were familiar with the company’s GIS platform. Crumpler said VIPER was one of the first systems in the nation to use Esri’s Flex API (application programming interface), which provided users with a simpler method of creating and modifying applications.

“They gave us a lot of time and effort in the process,” Colestock said, though he emphasized that Virginia’s efforts are vendor neutral. “The principles with which VIPER is made can be done with any viewer.” The ArcGIS platform that VIPER uses is intended for interoperability and conforms to open standards, according to Esri documents.

VIPER helps the state’s Emergency Operations Center in its mission to support state agencies and localities during disaster events, but has also proven helpful as a template to share with interested parties, including other states, through the national Virtual USA initiative, which promotes GIS information sharing among states and others.

VDEM also shares technical information with counties so they can create their own GIS information-sharing systems that cater to their data interests. “It gives them the flexibility to really control their own data,” Crumpler said.

Colestock emphasized the importance of leaving information control in the hands of originating parties. Partnering with hospitals and private associations to access their data — and also share VIPER — has required the department to respect proprietary concerns by drafting agreements to set limits and foment trust.

“[VIPER has] helped us to not only look at the map, but also to work with the data parties we need to work with,” Crumpler said.

Additionally anyone can appeal for a VIPER password and user name through its Web portal (, though the VIPER team uses discretion when granting varying levels of access.

User-Defined Operating Picture

Some 250 data layers regularly flow into VIPER’s maps, which presents the challenge of organizing and assigning value to data so users are empowered, not bombarded.

“In some cases it does overwhelm the user,” Colestock said. VDEM is continually refining ways to “quickly and rationally sort information for the multiple levels of decision-making we have.”

Instead of the standard “common operating picture” terminology (referring to shared access of the same GIS image), Colestock said the VIPER team now thinks of the system’s capabilities as how the user defines them. A user-first philosophy helps tether the technology to user needs: “Although the data flowing into the system is the same, the actual geospatial layers that you’re going to look at are different because you have a different question,” Colestock said.

VIPER has been used to track the spin of tornadoes, spread of the H1N1 virus, sprawl of traffic accidents, and aftermath of earthquakes and floods; to plan the response to terrorist threats, and chemical and nuclear disasters; and even to scan for anomalies during President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration ceremony.

As an example of VIPER in action, emergency responders used the system to watch storm movements and track traffic accidents in early 2010 after snow had blanketed the northeast. Responders followed the Virginia Department of Transportation traffic accident alerts, allocated resources among the many stakeholders and monitored the unfolding events as close as on-scene cameras.

“It helped us to make decisions by having a better picture of what was going on,” Colestock said. “And then having that same picture for the State Police, Department of Transportation and National Guard. They can look at that same thing and say, ‘We’ve got to do something about that — we understand the situation because we can actually see it.’”

The system combines GIS and database analytics to display certain information when thresholds are met. This is particularly helpful since users have identified the criteria, Crumpler said. 
In a hazardous materials event, he said responders want to know the proximity of traffic cameras, schools and hospitals, so VIPER displays this information every time a similar incident occurs. Colestock said VIPER’s ability to find, analyze and incorporate such data is powerful, but that a dynamic and motivated staff asking the right questions and using the system to find answers is just as essential.

“When I say, ‘I need to know what the snowplows are doing in West Virginia,’ I don’t know if there is data to tell me the answer to the question. I just need to know the answer,” Colestock explained. “With an agile staff and system, I can hopefully answer that question.”

Crumpler added, “When we are able to discover potentially relevant data and incorporate it into our situational awareness, many times we begin to see new patterns that we had never anticipated.”

From the Ashes

Several events culminated in VIPER, which was first released in August 2008. Seven months prior, wildfires that had spread to 60 of Virginia’s 95 counties left the department scrambling for real-time on-the-ground information, and coming up short. VDEM needed a clearer understanding of situational awareness.

Such context questions have plagued emergency responders for ages. “We always had the questions but it was like, ‘OK, what do I do about it?’” Colestock said. A former employee had the vision of creating an interactive GIS system, much like the one he had used in the Navy. “He thought this should be simple to solve,” Colestock said. “Well, it wasn’t exactly simple, but it was solvable.”

VIPER’s first version presented the department’s emergency management system, WebEOC, information alongside traditional GIS data. But in December 2008, the department made a significant breakthrough by discovering how — in addition to feeding VIPER live data — to download and perform additional analysis on outside information, Crumpler said. The change meant VIPER could automatically transform all kinds of information, such as National Weather Service temperature and wind information, published in scientific units, into relevant language using mph and degrees Fahrenheit. From there, VIPER can calculate wind chill and alert operators to icy roads and areas of gusty winds.

VIPER has continued to evolve. It’s integrated Twitter, Flickr and a new iPhone application that shows real-time data from WebEOC, local computer-aided design systems, traffic and National Weather Service radar.

That isn’t to say the essence of VIPER doesn’t still rest at that magical nexus between people and the information they need to make decisions.

“At the very center of any emergency activity, the single most important thing is information,” said Virtual USA Program Manager David Boyd. “Because if I don’t know what’s happening and if I don’t know where folks are, then I can’t effectively manage the emergency.”

Jessica Hughes is a regular contributor to Emergency Management and Government Technology magazines.

Platforms & Programs