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Emergency Response

Not When, but Where

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For most of human history, emergencies—whether acts of nature or human-caused events—have taken us by surprise, and disaster response has generally been reactive. You maintain your equipment, you stay alert and train, and you spring into action when something happens.


People walking through flood waters wearing plastic over their feet and lower legs


But what if emergency response can be not about playing catch-up but, instead, about building intelligent emergency systems—regional, national, and local—that interconnect our society to build the resilience we need? What if we can worry less about when because we're able to pinpoint where?

As a matter of fact, location intelligence for emergency management is driving a profound change in how local municipalities, state and federal agencies, and other organizations build resilience and respond to emergencies. Thanks to web-based location information and a rising geospatial information consciousness integrated into intelligent digital maps, we can analyze the complex interconnections among the natural and human-made systems within a particular location. In other words, we can explore the systemic risk around us to understand where we need to reduce risk and vulnerability.

When we need to take action, we can do so with both the speed and precision required by knowing exactly where to start the backfires to contain a wildfire, exactly which blocks to evacuate before a hurricane, exactly which areas to quarantine in a pandemic. Not only can we intervene early to reduce cascading impacts, we also can use maps that tap people's inherent geographic thinking to mobilize them as active participants in public safety preparedness initiatives when action is critical, or to aid in recovery within the community.

Today, location intelligence for emergency response is showing us the power of where—a new understanding of place.


Fire map showing the probable areas of fire spread for a California fire


Wildfires—The United States Forest Service's model provides information about the distribution and types of trees, bushes, and other ground cover; data on rainfall, snowfall, sunshine, and temperature; the amount of moisture the local vegetation holds; and construction materials used in an area. It even includes the diameters of tree trunks and the sites of clogged culverts (which alter patterns of water flow). Users can predict when and where a wildfire is likely to produce terrifying phenomena such as fire whirls, which can snap and hurl trees; pairs of counterrotating horizontal-roll fire vortices that form in midair but can reach ground; and the fingers of a fire, which can reach firefighters even 100 meters from a fire's edge.

Hurricanes—When Hurricane Florence approached the Carolinas in mid-September 2018, city officials in New Bern, South Carolina, used data from Esri's ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World along with information on street closures and shelters to create online public maps that showed these critical features as well as the local stream gauges, wind velocity, and even power outages in real time. This proved indispensable when the nature of the storm proceeded to change several times. "It turned out to be a flood event," said Charlie Kaufman of the South Carolina Emergency Management Division. Regional authorities could tell from their location intelligence-infused maps not only that they would need to evacuate 170,000 residents but also that 22,000 households did not have a vehicle and would need to be provided with transportation.

Tornadoes—Given the volatility of tornadoes, the focus is on immediate lifesaving response, like search and rescue, and on efforts in speeding up recovery. Delivery of recovery funds has become dramatically faster due to location intelligence systems and a national building footprint and parcel dataset, which allow for quicker calculations of damage to homes and structures. What used to take the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) five or six days to do now takes less than 24 hours.


Relief workers deliver jugs of water to a disaster site


These same technologies, skills, and systems have been applied to transform emergency response in matters ranging from refugee crises, conflict zones, 911 calls, and the clearing of landmines to the monitoring of food and drug safety by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Recent events related to the novel coronavirus 2019 pandemic have highlighted the value of location intelligence for emergency response and public health—a new field termed public health emergency management. From mapping cases to modeling the spread of the disease and allocating resources, the element of place is critical throughout.

Perhaps nothing so clearly illustrates the profound transformation made possible by geospatial information awareness and a new sense of place as its impact on what is arguably the world's best-known disaster responder, the American Red Cross. Its digital system, RC View, provides situational awareness, a common operational picture, and real-time data. RC View enables the organization to project the course of a specific event into the near future and optimize the decisions and actions of its 80,000 staff members and volunteers as well as an extended network of government agencies and community partners. "It's no exaggeration to say that RC View has transformed the Red Cross," says Harvey Johnson, senior vice president of Disaster Cycle Services, American Red Cross. "It has enabled us to map the geography of disaster."

By Ryan Lanclos, Director of Public Safety and Disaster Response for Esri

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