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Public Safety Now: Using GIS for public safety during a crisis

GIS plays a crucial role in maintaining community safety. Learn how to leverage it during challenging times to improve operations for police, fire, EMS and PSAPs in this episode of Public Safety Now.

JW: Hi, and thanks for tuning into Public Safety Now on HxGN Radio. I’m your host, John Whitehead, vice president of sales for U.S. Public Safety here at Hexagon’s Safety and Infrastructure division. Today, we’re going to be talking with Keri Brennan. She’s with the DATAMARK division of Michael Baker. And we’re going to be talking about GIS. For most of us, we think GIS, and it’s become part of our everyday life. We open up our phone, and that’s how we get to anywhere. We just have GIS in our hands and part of our day regularly now. For some, you hear GIS and you think, oh, that’s just mapping stuff. But I think this is going to be a good conversation. We’re going to talk about how GIS, especially within public safety, how it can assist during times of a crisis, some of the best practices and some of the items. So, Keri, welcome. Glad to have you on.

KB: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

JW: So, I always ask this at the beginning. Tell us a little bit about yourself, kind of where you’ve been, what you’ve done and how you became the GIS expert that you are today.

KB: I have a long and colorful GIS past, started more than 25 years ago, working in GIS in forestry, actually. And then my career path went into mining for a while. And then I’m originally from Canada. I moved to the United States, and I started working in parcel mapping, utility mapping, and migrated my way into public safety GIS. So, I’ve been doing GIS in all sorts of different realms for quite a long time now.

JW: That is awesome. That’s a great career, and it seems like it’s done really well for you.

So, Keri, I got to be honest with you. Here’s where my head was. When we started talking about putting this together, I said to myself, ‘Really? We’re going to talk about GIS in a crisis situation? I mean, it’s just a map. I mean, everybody’s got maps now. What kind of topic is this’? And so, I really want to kind of start off with that, maybe for those that are listening and they’re at the beginning of this going, ‘Oh, god. GIS, tell me why this is important during a crisis situation’. I mean why is it so important, and why is it a key area for managing the large-scale events and crisis?

KB: So, it’s actually a great topic to bring up, especially in light of the ever-changing world we are in this year. During a crisis, it’s absolutely critical that public safety teams themselves might fall into a situation where they do not have the ability to be at work, say. You’ve got new people coming into an environment. They need to be able to rely on information that is not stored within people’s institutional knowledge, if you will. We all know that in the public safety realm, we’ve got police officers, firefighters, first responders of any type, telecommunicators, who just know everything about the area that they serve. But if they’re not able to be at work, we need to provide an evergreen source of information. That’s why having really good GIS data, having good best practices in place to maintain that GIS data, documentation, and information really helps to ensure a continuity of business.

JW: That’s actually a good point. And that’s actually an area, you know, I’d like to talk a little bit more about. I’ve spoken with some of our customers and some people in the emergency services. One of the examples, and I’ve used it many times, but one of the examples is the Northern California wildland fires. And in talking to some of the agencies there, they said it was really interesting because, you know, they have a full GIS environment. They maintain their environment. Here in the U.S., most everybody is running Esri, and they’ve got the full ArcGIS server set up and running. They said the issue was they maintain their own jurisdiction, but they were being called into other jurisdictions. And one of the guys said, it was interesting. He said all the technology and everything that we had and all the money that our agency has spent having a good GIS network day to day, it works out great for us. We go and we know exactly where people are. We can handle the incident and get there. But then on these large-scale incidents or in a crisis event, need to expand those boundaries. They need to go beyond what you might have within your data set, almost became a burden. They said that they were forced to go to their personal devices. They were forced to bring up a commercial data point just to be able to find where they were going. And even some of those, especially in wildland fire situations, they didn’t have some of the offbeat trails and paths that they needed to get to. So, they said they just kind of point the rigs to the smoke and just kind of head that way and then use the radio to have people guide him in as they got closer.

KB: Absolutely. And as Next Gen 911 further rolls out and we start doing spatial call routing, the GIS data that is going to be available not just for that spatial call routing, but to help every agency in the public safety framework is just going to help these situations, because really what we’re doing is we’re tearing down silos. You no longer work just in your city or just in your county. But now we’re looking at much more regional areas where the ability to do multijurisdictional, you know, have access to multiple jurisdictions’ worth of data is going to only help our first responder community.

JW: Yeah. And I think you’re right. The breaking down silos is kind of the topic that we hear most. It’s my day-to-day world is going just fine. It’s whenever we do have to break down that silo and go outside of our boundaries, if you will, where that comes into play.

I’m also finding the GIS data is just instrumental when it comes to post analysis. If you start looking at some of the analytical items and some of the reports, it’s great to have that tabularised report and be able to see response times and see some of that. But especially on these large incidents, whether it’s a tornado in the Midwest, an earthquake, any type of area here, I mean, even now with the coronavirus, we’re watching on the national news, they have this Johns Hopkins map up behind them, showing the spread. Having a visual representation of that data seems to be instrumental in post debriefings and post analysis as well.

KB: It absolutely does. Not just post analysis, but also some preplanning as we move forward, using things like hazardous mitigation planning. You know that a hurricane is coming. It’s going to hit, say, the Gulf Coast. And you anticipate that it’s going to be a category four. Being able to plan out what the storm surge is going to be, so you can better determine where people need to evacuate, what that evacuation zone needs to be, and kind of the timing of that. Those are all things that GIS not only tabularly helps you plan for, but visually helps you plan for as well. And being a GIS person that has worked in the industry for more than 25 years, I am a little biased because I think everything kind of revolves around the map. But really what we’re doing is we’re using tabular and visual data to just help us answer those critical questions in a time of need.

JW: Yeah, I think they did. I think you’re right. I didn’t really think about it that way, but it’s not just for post-review and post-analysis, but it’s the preplanning and coming up with strategies before it hits. If we start looking at hurricane-prone areas, understanding traffic management, where will evacuations occur, where will our slowdowns be, and how can we mitigate those items, I would see that being very beneficial to agencies as well.

KB: I had a project manager that I worked with that always told me that the next project always started the moment the project that you’re working on ends. And really, it’s that post-analysis just automatically rolls right into preplanning.

JW: Yep. Agreed.

So how can vendors and public safety agencies work together? I mean, we want to make sure that agencies have the capabilities necessary to manage large-scale incidents in crisis types of events. How do you see vendors, like you and I, working with agencies better to be able to provide that?

KB: There are a lot of really great ways that we can work together in what I like to kind of call public and private relationships. Obviously, as vendors, making sure that we are providing tools to our public safety community that are easy to use, stable, easily accessible. And then from a GIS perspective, there are GIS data sets that are available that can be plugged into a system. But the quality of it is really what we need to talk about. We need to put in place some best practices to ensure that when a crisis hits, our first responders have confidence in the information and the technology that is behind it.

We all know that in a Next Gen 911 world, we’ve heard that you should have ALI, MSAG and GIS data synchronised to 98 percent. That means that 98 percent of the time, every record that’s in your MSAG has a road center-line match, and every ALI record has an address point available in your GIS data. I would challenge you that as vendors we need to help our local jurisdictions take the data beyond 98 percent and get all the way up to that five nines of quality. The reason for that is, again, that confidence in the data. If you’re somebody that, like, in the California wildfires, if you’re responding in an area that you are not familiar with, it’s nice to know that the logging road that you might be traveling on has recently been updated, that is matching with all of the other systems. So, being able to provide services and tools to our public safety clients, I think is going to be critical.

JW: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I agree. And one of the things that we continually get asked or is, you know, they’ve got local data. They’ve got a GIS department. City, county, state may have that. They’ve got their personnel who are doing great work and keeping things up to date and their hydrant layers and there their ESZs and items that are necessary for their local data. The thing, though, we keep getting asked for is, how do I incorporate that with commercial data, and how can I utilise the strength of a Bing map, Google map, Waze-type of data point that everybody’s used to using in their personal life, how can I incorporate that in? It seems like a blend of that is key.

KB: I would agree with you. Now, I’m going to kind of caveat that first by saying that the local data should always be the authoritative data because the local GIS person who’s maintaining that data really has access to that authoritative information. And it’s probably the most current that is available. Waze data, crowd-sourced information from an open street map, the Bing maps, things like that are absolutely critical to supplement what you have in your GIS data, because again, you might have a single person that’s trying to maintain an entire enterprise GIS system. So, they’re doing parcel maps. They’re doing utilities, making sure the hydrants are up to date. They’re making sure that the addresses and street center lines are up to date. And, honestly, they might be overwhelmed, and they might be overwhelmed, especially in a time of crisis. That’s where that supplemental GIS, it can absolutely be a godsend.

JW: Yeah. You know, it goes back to the timeliness of GIS because there’s work that needs to be done. I know that at my county, the GIS person was continually updating, addressing new subdivisions, new developments that were occurring. And that’s a full-time gig in and of itself. And now you get into a critical situation, what type of turnaround can be expected and how can we do these quicker and easier to try to get that data out? Because a lot of times, to your point, we can preplan and we can kind of say, “oh, well, if this happens, then we do this.” You can have that all laid out. But now in today’s world, we just had everything kind of flip on its head here over the last week. And now we’re going to be dealing with areas maybe we didn’t have responses before. Maybe we’re going to be doing assisting nearby agencies and doing a lot more mutual aid to be responding to EMS calls, for example. What type of timeliness should we expect in this, and how can we make things a little bit quicker and easier for the agencies?

KB: Timeliness is definitely a concern when it comes to GIS data. Updating your GIS data has to be a constant thing. When it comes to public safety GIS data, having your address points, your road center lines, your boundary data updated really is, I hate to say it, more critical than if a parcel split doesn’t happen on Tuesday. Making sure that all of that GIS data is updated on Monday and pushed out is going to be really critical. And what you’re seeing today is that in the GIS and geospatial world, in particular public safety GIS, to support the criticality of having good quality and consistently updated GIS data is really becoming a career unto itself. You’re not the GIS person that maintains the parcels and the utility data and the addressing data. I’m starting to see a lot of places where they are inventing GIS professionals right into the PSAP.

JW: Yeah, because it’s that critical, and it changes that much. I mean, you know, we think GIS, and again, we go to the basics, we go to mapping, for example, address points, those types of things. But CAD systems, mobile products are asking for more. I mean, the intelligence that comes out of GIS, whether it’s one-way streets, height, width restrictions, the ability to understand the best route to get there, that requires a lot more input from the GIS side. And you know, it’s the data in the GIS help strengthen the data out of the CAD system and the response planning.

KB: You’re absolutely right. Now, not all of the information that you just mentioned is necessarily, I’ll say, map data. Sometimes things like lane restrictions and widths, pavement widths, things like that are stored in other databases. The really cool thing about GIS is we take that visual data—the points, the lines, the polygons—and we associate it with so many other databases. And that’s really for me where the power of GIS comes from is you don’t necessarily have to maintain all of that information directly on a GIS feature, but you can maintain it outside in those other databases. Let’s say that the local highway department maintains a database that has lane restrictions on it, pavement conditions, things like that. Connecting that in and not having somebody key it in and potentially make a mistake. That’s really where the power comes from. So, you’re enhancing, and you’re absorbing all of that information.

JW: Yeah, we here at Hexagon have taken it on as what we call a multi-source map, but essentially, let’s have the ability to utilise those other databases. Let’s have those—I shouldn’t have to go back to my GIS person, ask them to add a layer or ask them to connect to that. Let’s have all of those already available. And then as needed, we’ll turn those layers on. And it can be real time. It can be up-to-date and not anything that’s going to bog down the system. But it doesn’t require a full map roll. It doesn’t require a lot of intense labor on the GIS side to keep up with all those changes. But to your point, having those other databases connected is absolutely important. You know, a request for having a weather layer, for example. That’s one area that—listen, I can get it on my phone. I can turn on the television and see it. Why can’t I have that right here in the CAD? You absolutely should. Doesn’t mean that my GIS person needs to keep—he be the weather expert and updating that layer. Let’s just use the data that’s already available out there to give that information to the people that absolutely need it.

KB: And so many things in the GIS world are moving towards a cloud-based or a SaaS-based solution that make it available 24/7. You have Internet access, consistent map features, map layers are being fed out. They can be consumed into other products. And I think that’s really what you’re hitting on, that weather layer, you know, bringing that in and having it real time be visible to be able to turn it on or off as needed within CAD, that is really amazing. Some of them are going to come from commercial vendors. Some are going to be fed out by local PSAPs or local GIS departments. So, you know, you’re in a county, and you need to see your neighbor’s GIS data. Well, instead of calling them up and them either FTPing over a bunch of GIS data that you can load in, basically what they do is they send you up a web link that you can insert in. The power of the Internet and moving into IP-based solutions, I think, is really the future of GIS. You see that with industry partners like Esri. A lot of things over into the cloud, into the cloud; DATAMARK, our solution, is SaaS-based as well, so it’s hosted in the cloud. That makes it very easy to be accessible. I know Hexagon is doing a lot of stuff in terms of cloud-based applications for CAD as well. It’s the way of the future.

JW: Yeah, it really is. I mean, we can’t—the days of the client server implementation, having static data, not connected to the Internet, and just having the details that we have, having some back-room people updating that maybe a couple times a year, those days are long gone. To your point, we’re more of a microwave type of world, where we need to get data quickly. We need to get data accurately, and then be able to make that actionable data to where it’s all useable, especially in the middle of a crisis, because so many things can change.

You know, I was watching one of our customers, one of our GIS customers, that uses it extensively over in the Carolinas. And one of the hurricanes that was going on, they were monitoring the flooding that was occurring and how that was affecting their evacuation routes. And then they could say, I mean, they were doing things like both the east- and the westbound lanes, they were making westbound so that people could evacuate the coastlines. That type of thing doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it doesn’t happen by slowly getting information in. You’ve got to keep that stuff precise. You’ve got to keep that up to date. And to your point, the Internet helps us do that. And I’ll say Internet, intranet and zNet. Whatever the connection is, getting that data quickly and accurately is the key there.

KB: Absolutely. And, you know, to your point, your customer in the Carolinas that was watching the hurricane and making essentially real-time decisions, the other side of that is them being able to make those real-time decisions with good, accurate and verified GIS data, they’re getting people out of harm’s way and they’re not putting our first responders in harm’s way to say, “hey, go and check to see if that road is flooded or not.” So, you know, that’s just what came to mind to me when you were telling me that story.

JW: Yeah. No, exactly. So, as we kind of wrap this thing up, I do have a kind of a futuristic question, if you will, and you’re looking down the road. As we get through this pandemic and the new crisis of the day that we’re dealing with, what are some lessons you think we’re going to learn from this event, and how do those apply to GIS and that Next Generation 911? Any thoughts or insight as to how we may be better after this is over?

KB: I think with every crisis that we as a society run into, whether it’s the COVID-19 coronavirus or if it is a hurricane or a tornado, we’re always looking at further lessons learned. I’m going to actually use an example from URISA’s GISCorps, which is a really great organisation that is kind of like the Peace Corps for GIS. If you have a crisis, you need help, they can activate a project. Volunteers will help create GIS data. They’ve done hundreds and hundreds of projects around the world. It started out of Hurricane Katrina, when there was, honestly, that long ago there was a lack of infrastructure like we have today in such great devastation that volunteers picked up and went down to, if I remember correctly, it was Jackson, Mississippi, and just started immediately doing GIS work, mapping out where there were houses without roofs. So basically, they were mapping out all of the blue tarps. They were mapping out what roads were closed, what roads were open, and they were getting that out to local first responders, local emergency managers.

Jump ahead to today. And because we are in an even more connected society, what you’re seeing happen in China, what you’re seeing happen in Italy, what you’re seeing happen in North America, we’re taking the information that we are getting, both mapped out and tabular data, and we’re moving forward and starting to map that information out. You mentioned the Johns Hopkins dashboard. That’s a perfect example that’s I won’t say real-time, but near real-time of mapping out where the crisis is moving. And you will see out of this even better dashboard information, even better predictive information, based on the spatial data.

JW: I completely agree. I think that that’s going to be where, if we have to pick a change, that’s what you’re going to see. It’s going to be able to take that data; provide solid, accurate information to the public; solid, accurate information to the responders; and really have those tools at the ready to be able to do that. I mean, I think that those are the types of changes that we’ve continually been living, but that we’re going to see more and more as we kind of proceed through this crisis onto the next one. We keep saying on this podcast that this, too, shall pass. We will get through this. And, you know, I see us growing as an industry and the emergency services coming out on the other end, maybe a little tired, maybe a little beaten and battered, but at the end of it, we’re going to definitely be better for it. And that’s all we can hope for, is to learn from it and move on to the next one.

So, Keri, this has been a great conversation. We’ve covered just some, you know, a few of the topics. I know GIS can take us into some really, really deep topics and can get in the weeds pretty quickly. But the areas that you spoke about, I thought were very informative and necessary kind of in the world that we’re living in today.

And I didn’t mention at the beginning, but you’re also president of URISA, right? Is that correct?

KB: That is correct, yes.

JW: Well, congratulations on that. I’m sure between your day job and URISA, they definitely keep you busy and keep you involved in all things GIS. So, I’m looking forward to talking to you again in the future and hearing some exciting new developments as it comes to the GIS.

So, at this point, I just want to say thank you, and a big thanks to our guest, Keri Brennan. To hear additional episodes or learn more, visit us at hxgnspotlight.com. And thanks for tuning in.