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Beverly Hills, Calif., Uses Virtual App to Prepare for, React to Emergencies

Interactive GIS application helps public safety officials better manage resources and responses in an emergency.

Beverly Hills, Calif.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Wikimedia Commons
Beverly Hills, the glitzy Los Angeles suburb, is known by most as a haven for Southern California’s rich and famous. But beyond Rodeo Drive and the jet-setting “teenagers” depicted by the soap opera sharing the same name, Beverly Hills must grapple with reality just like every other city.

Beverly Hills also has needs that sometimes transcend the ordinary. Celebrities, politicians and dignitaries from around the globe demand that the city performs above and beyond when it comes to public safety. In addition, the city is nestled near Southern California mountains that are infamous for bursting into infernos. Add to that the fact of life that besets all of Southern California — the potential for catastrophic earthquakes — and it becomes clear that the goings-on behind the scenes in Beverly Hills can be anything but glamorous.

To help city officials and public safety agencies better prepare for and react to emergencies, the City Council and Mayor Jimmy Delshad tasked CIO David Schirmer with developing a system that would allow users to visualize on a map, real-time resource data, disaster information, traffic conditions or anything else they imagined would be helpful. What resulted is a cutting-edge GIS application known as Virtual Beverly Hills.

More Than a Map

“Virtual Beverly Hills was developed to meet the needs of emergency responders and public safety of Beverly Hills with the intention to expand for regional use,” explained Lema Kebede, the city’s GIS systems integrator/program coordinator. “It has a major mapping component that is the central point of this application. But we took it beyond just basic mapping.”

The program is built atop GIS software from Esri, which is based in Redlands, Calif. A Virtual Beverly Hills user is presented with an aerial map of the city, similar to those one would find using Google, Yahoo or Bing maps. But that’s where the similarities end and the power of Virtual Beverly Hills begins.

Virtual Beverly Hills incorporates a vast array of data sets from internal and external sources. U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) data sets, for example, let users accurately map potential damage from an earthquake while internal city computer-aided design data sets provide emergency responders with precision detail about structures that might be affected in a disaster. With the click of a mouse, users can even access real-time video feeds from city closed-circuit TV cameras, which could be invaluable in an emergency.

All this data is stored in the city’s geo-database, into which Virtual Beverly Hills is integrated. External data can be processed and layered on the map in near real time, providing public safety officials with the latest details should an emergency arise. The database also stores information as it’s being received in case a disaster severs network connections. For example, Kebede said that Virtual Beverly Hills receives live data from the USGS during an earthquake. If the network connection is lost, the data is stored locally, allowing emergency responders to keep using the system.

While that’s impressive, Virtual Beverly Hills is not just an earthquake-mapping tool — its capabilities go further. In this modern era of terror, other disaster scenarios beyond just the natural variety must be considered. For this reason, Virtual Beverly Hills also can map the potential damage areas produced by an explosive device or a chemical spill. The system also shows emergency personnel where evacuations might be required and even provides easy access to homeowner contact information.

“For situational awareness, the emergency responders can add data layers based on the type of event,” Kebede said. “If there is a report of an explosive, first responders could automatically calculate the potential area to be evacuated.”

To accomplish this, a user would simply select a point on the map, and using a drop-down menu, select from a variety of explosives, each displaying values unique to their type. TNT, for example, has distinct destructive capability that’s different from C4 or a simple pipe bomb. The values are also changeable if emergency personnel find themselves dealing with an unorthodox explosive. 

With the appropriate explosive selected, Virtual Beverly Hills then shows where the affected population resides and can display the results by age if officials need to evacuate those requiring assistance. The system also identifies critical infrastructure that would be affected by a blast.

The process is similar for other kinds of localized threats.

“Say a chemical spill is reported, a user can identify what perimeter the first responder should focus on,” Kebede said. “Users can select what type of chemical it is, whether it’s day or night. It will identify the area to be evacuated and where the potential damage will be.”

Past, Present and Future

Work on building Virtual Beverly Hills began more than a year ago. CIO Schirmer said Mayor Delshad was enthusiastic about building a next-generation mapping tool that could be used by the city, regional governments and eventually the state.

“We knew that we needed a new application to support our EOC [Emergency Operations Center], which was new as well,” Schirmer said. “But we wanted to do more, to bring in lots of different data sources and create this common operating platform so that all the members [and] different branches of the EOC could be on the same platform.”

So with the blessing of the mayor and City Council — who lobbied for and won $800,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program — Schirmer and his staff consulted with other agencies and states. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was an obvious first stop, but the city also worked with Maryland to learn about its mapping application, StateStat.

With their research complete, work on a prototype system began in 2009. Schirmer was careful not to neglect the end-users while the system was in development.

“It was a group effort,” he said. “Our application development team was involved with it. But really working in conjunction with our end-users — the first responders, police and fire — they helped determine the functionality that would be important to them. We then did our own research and looked at what other states and municipalities are doing and tried to build upon that.”

Though to date the city has been fortunate to avoid any real emergency scenarios that would have put Virtual Beverly Hills to the test, Schirmer and the city took the system for a test drive during this year’s Los Angeles Marathon. The annual race also served as a platform for testing another of Virtual Beverly Hills’ capabilities — facilitating integrated communications.

“We actually mobilized an EOC as if it were an event. And really it was just to exercise it and see how well these things worked,” Schirmer said. “That involved Los Angeles, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and other municipalities like Santa Monica. So it really had this regional context to it. We had a lot of mobile video out there that was ingested into the system. We had a lot of ad hoc wireless set up to facilitate communications, as well as our standard RF [radio frequency] police and fire radio. All of that was interoperable, and it seemed to work very well. We got a lot of praise from the people who saw it in action.”

Going forward, Schirmer said he plans to extend the technology to other jurisdictions in the region and eventually deed the entire system to California. Virtual Beverly Hills didn’t come cheap despite the grant money and some in-kind services from the DHS. But, Schirmer said, “The good news is, for our partners, it’s effectively free.”

And like any good emergency response tool, everyone hopes that Virtual Beverly Hills will never really be needed. But if a disaster strikes the real Beverly Hills, it’ll be nice to know the virtual version is ready to help.

Chad Vander Veen is a former contributing editor for Emergency Management magazine, and previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.