A Follow-Up Report: Breakthrough in Towson – AHC’s GIS Workshop

The All Hazards Consortium (AHC) hosted its first regional GIS (geographic information systems) workshop just two months ago (29-30 July) at Towson University in Towson, Maryland, and all indications are that it was a major success. GIS is an exciting and still relatively new breakthrough technology that has been embraced internationally by individuals, businesses, and at all levels of government. GIS technology – which consists primarily of data systems focused on the precise geographic locations of buildings, people, and various “things” of all types – is used daily by those who, for example, follow and plan their schedules around weather information, by those who use GPS (geographic positioning systems) devices in their vehicles, and by convention planners, subway administrators, city administrators, military planners, and many others who track the flow of people, traffic, and consumer goods as part of their daily workload.

In the field of emergency management, the information received via GIS – related to, for example, weather, population density, traffic flow, and/or the location of emergency resources – is critical to the emergency-management community’s success in tracking, analyzing, and predicting threat events and their resolution.  Among many other GIS-related capabilities important to the community are the modeling of human behavior in different threat situations; overall crisis modeling; automation (particularly as related to the sharing of intelligence and data); the delivery of information in a form that is internationally understood; and the rapid forwarding of information to decision makers and others through reliable communication systems.

The first day of the Towson GIS Workshop focused on descriptive reports regarding different types of GIS technology, with special presentations by: (a) the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI, a GIS industry giant whose software and hardware systems are used in most of the AHC presenters’ businesses and/or political jurisdictions); and (b) Avalias, an Australian-based company with a particular focus on people-management software.

Day Two of the Workshop was devoted to a discussion of reports and updates from emergency-management jurisdictional representatives from the U.S. Mid-Atlantic States, and to breakout sessions focused on the principal GIS challenges facing the emergency-management community. This is the general format followed at almost all AHC regional meetings, which focus on a primary area of interest to AHC members – e.g., border and transportation security, the protection of critical infrastructure, emergency management, grants and procurement, health and medical readiness, information sharing and intelligence, law-enforcement, and public-safety communications and interoperability.

After such workshops, consensus white papers are developed summarizing the results of each regional meeting’s presentations and breakout sessions. The white papers are then edited and collated for distribution to other decision makers, operational specialists, and budget directors throughout the Mid-Atlantic States. The goal is, of course, to spread the flow of helpful information and, at the same time, attract additional funding and other support from corporate constituents. Four AHC-developed white papers developed from the Towson workshop presentations have been released to date. More detailed information on AHC’s efforts in this area is available on the consortium’s website (www.ahcusa.org).

Guidelines and Goals, Programs and Presentations

All presenters at the AHC’s GIS Workshop meeting were provided a common set of questions and issues to address in their presentations, which focused on such topics as GIS policy, technology, partnerships, past and present successes, and future challenges. The workshop guidelines – another AHC organizational device intended to keep the broad spectrum of presentations focused on specific informational targets – allowed both the attendees and the volunteer white-paper authors to follow a common format in assembling and presenting information relevant to their selected topics. Following are some but by no means all of the more notable points made by the presenters – all of whom were jurisdictional emergency-management/GIS representatives from the Mid-Atlantic States:

(1) The most important factor in using shared GIS data is the quality of the data received, but that quality varies in accordance with: (a) how the data is collected; (b) the type of data (imagery preferred) provided; (c) how the data is maintained and verified; and (d) how current the data is.

(2) For better communication and sharing, emergency-management personnel need and should be provided GIS training – on a continuing basis, preferably, if only to stay abreast of new developments. On the other hand, GIS experts should learn more about what emergency-management entails.

(3) Additional resources, and greater emphasis, should be placed on GIS data analyses and modeling so that partners can schedule and carry out exercises modeled on simulated catastrophic events of all types.

(4) An inventory of the location of GIS databases should be conducted and distributed as soon as possible, with information included on how that data can be accessed.

(5) Improved working relationships must be established and nurtured between GIS entities at all levels of government – and between government and the private sector – if the organization’s primary goal, the sharing of information, is going to be achieved. Several of the Towson presenters described successful partnerships as those characterized by: a feeling of ownership by all participants; open communications; shared intelligence and information; clearly defined goals and objectives as well as roles and responsibilities; the leveraging of unique individual strengths for the common good; building a higher level of expertise throughout the emergency-management community; the incorporation of partnership duties into the job descriptions of the staff involved; shared funding and resources; and – most important of all, perhaps – an expanded “vision of the possible.”

The presenters provided information on an impressive number of collaborative programs and activities that also can be leveraged to help improve GIS capabilities among emergency managers in the Mid-Atlantic States. Among the specific programs/activities/websites mentioned were the NJGin Metadata Training Program (http://njgin.nj.gov), the NJ Geospatial Forum (https://njgin.state.nj.us/OIT_NJGF/index.jsp), the New Jersey Emergency Preparedness Association (http://www.njepa.org), the VEMA Conference (https://www.vemaweb.org/symposium), the Virginia Metadata Portal (https://vgin.vdem.virginia.gov/pages/clearinghouse), the GIS Geospatial Enterprise Platform at VGIN (http://www.interoperability.publicsafety.virginia.gov/CommunicationSystems/VGIN-VR3.cfm),  the National Map (USGS) (http://nationalmap.gov), and the NSGIC and the Spatial Data Framework (www.nsgic.org).

Initially funded (in 2006) by an Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) National Capital Region, and by in-kind donations from public and private-sector partners, university partners, and volunteers, the AHC is a 501c3 non-profit, incorporated in 2005 by the states of Virginia and Maryland and the District of Columbia. It currently includes and is guided by representatives from the eight regional states (Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia) and the District of Columbia. The AHC’s principal mission is to form a cooperative network of Mid-Atlantic area businesses and individuals from government, the private sector, academia, and other volunteer non-profits that share a common interest in preventing, preparing for, responding to, and recovering from crises.

Another important AHC mission is to provide funding opportunities through which network members can improve their homeland-security and emergency-management capabilities, and in this endeavor they have been fairly successful. The successes achieved to date are attributed in part to AHC’s well organized approach to funding discovery, and in part to the synergistic force created when a large number of jurisdictional and private-sector stakeholders speak with one voice about the resources they need to maintain and improve the emergency-management capabilities of the Mid-Atlantic States they represent.

diana hopkins
Diana Hopkins

Diana Hopkins is the creator of the consulting firm “Solutions for Standards” (www.solutionsforstandards.com). She is a 12-year veteran of AOAC INTERNATIONAL and former senior director of AOAC Standards Development. Most of her work since the 2001 terrorist attacks has focused on standards development in the fields of homeland security and emergency management. In addition to being an advocate of ethics and quality in standards development, Hopkins is also a certified first responder and a recognized expert in technical administration, governance, and process development and improvement.



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