Geospatial Mapping for Security and Public Safety
Mar 15, 2007

Many threats and hazards have the potential to undermine the security and safety of Canadians. These threats and hazards can be man-made, such as acts of terrorism, or they can be natural, such as floods, fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes. The ability of the public safety and security community to manage these emergencies and disasters can be aided by information technology. In particular, ‘geospatial’ information technology (technology that ties information to a location – a mapping system) is proving increasingly useful to emergency managers.

Information about the landscape within which a disaster could take or has taken place, such as the extent of a flood, allows emergency managers to handle incidents better throughout all four phases of the emergency management cycle: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.

A Common Picture of your Area of Operations
With a variety of government jurisdictions and industries mandated to respond to and manage emergencies, the need for coordination requires agencies to share information and a common picture of the situation. These organizations are increasingly turning to geospatial information to help coordinate their efforts and make critical decisions related to public safety and security.

Geospatial information is fast becoming a key resource for Public Safety & Security organizations. The U.S National Research Council recently published a report “Successful Response Starts with a Map: Improving GeoSpatial Support for Disaster Management.” The report evaluated the current use of geospatial data and tools in emergency management and makes recommendations to improve such use. It states: “In all aspects of emergency management, geospatial data and tools have the potential to contribute to the saving of lives, the limitation of damage, and the reduction in the costs to society of dealing with emergencies.”

Progress has been made in developing and using technologies to gather and make use of geospatial information – Canada is recognized as a world leader in this domain. Canada’s competitive advantage and considerable industry expertise in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), remote sensing satellites, and Global Positioning System (GPS) technologies have benefited emergency managers who employ location-based information to support decision-making.

Challenges to Sharing Geospatial Information
In the past, several factors created challenges regarding the use of geospatial information. Various jurisdictions and organizations collected geospatial data in disparate ways, using different standards. As a result, similar datasets were gathered but were incomparable across jurisdictions. This hindered data sharing and increased duplication – increasing costs to government while impeding inter-jurisdictional and interdisciplinary analysis for many public safety and security organizations. With Internet mapping applications emerging in the mid-1990s, the impacts of these barriers to data access were magnified.

Geospatial systems emerged that used location-based information focused on individual public safety and security agencies. As these systems were built for an organizational purpose, dissimilar information systems evolved again, using incompatible data formats that made information sharing difficult. In addition, considerable amounts of geospatial data had use-restrictions and were not readily accessible via the Internet. Data that was available, online or not, was often dated. The potential of geospatial information to improve public safety and security decision-making was reduced as a result of these challenges. As one can readily understand, these issues are no more apparent than in times of crisis, when ready access to reliable information is so critical.

Floods of 2005
In 2005, the province of Saskatchewan experienced an unprecedented situation with over 90 communities experiencing damage from heavy rain, overland water flows and flooding. Total estimated damage was in the tens of millions of dollars.

Sharing information improves emergency response.

The threat of flooding to the community of Cumberland House resulted in the establishment of an incident command post in the community and a partial activation of the Provincial Emergency Management Committee (PEMC) and the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre.

Cellular telephones, conference call interlinks, daily incident reports and paper maps provided the main sources of communications, coordination and information sharing across several provincial departments and between local, provincial and federal authorities. The limitations of these communication tools was quickly recognized as PEMC members attempted to understand the threats and the impact of their decisions on the community. The need for geospatial and other data between the local incident command centre, the EOC and other agencies in order to understand the situation became obvious to all. The need to share information for operational, management, policy, communications and financial decisions was also recognized.

While the province has established the organizational structures and protocols to manage emergencies, the public safety community has limited access to geo­spatial data and interactive emergency mapping systems.

To resolve this problem, the lead provincial department responsible for emergencies, Saskatchewan Corrections and Public Safety, initiated the Situational Awareness Project to provide a geospatial-based system for use in emergency management. The project is currently in the definition phase with implementation planned for the fall of 2007. The project objective is to implement a system that improves decision-making during emergencies, resulting in reduced impacts on people, property and communities. The project involves the use of geospatial information and applications to facilitate decision-making; both vertically through different levels of government, and horizontally across each of those layers of government. The project is driven by the increasing need for many agencies and organizations to co-operate very closely to deliver rapid and effective emergency service during times of crisis.

The project will facilitate sharing of essential information and improve coordination and response to emergencies. For example, prior to emergency events, geographic displays of areas of concern could be identified and considered in the development of emergency plans. This information could be used to enhance the existing modeling of incidents such as predictive flood modeling for evacuation of threatened populations. Alternatively, situational awareness could be enhanced by accessing real-time information (the location of washed-out roads, for example) to enable redeployment of emergency resources to the critical incident via ­alternate routes and to establish priorities for recovery efforts.

Mobile geospatial systems are increasingly being used by the Public Safety and Security communities.

Saskatchewan Floods 2006
While the 2005 flooding in Saskatchewan illustrated the need for a geospatial based situational awareness tool to provide targeted information, it did so in the context of issues related to coordinating resources for a single community. The 2006 floods and fires further confirmed the need for this information but added a new dimension of widespread events on a much larger scale. Several communities with differing capabilities and experiences needed differing levels and types of assistance, at the same time. Some communities needed assistance to evacuate their citizens, at the same time others needed assistance to return their citizens and prepare for recovery. Citizens were being evacuated to more than one community, to the point where members of a same family were being sent to different ­communities. These circumstances added further dimensions to the need for a coord­inated and informed response based on the most up-to-date information possible in each situation.

Addressing the Challenges
The Saskatchewan Situational Awareness Project is one of many decision-support systems being implemented across Canada in collaboration with GeoConnections.

GeoConnections is a national partnership program established by the Canadian government to facilitate the building of the Canadian Geospatial Data Infra­structure to address the challenges of sharing geospatial information. The Canadian Geospatial Data Infrastructure (CGDI) is an internationally recognized and advanced implementation of a spatial data infrastructure.  The term ‘spatial data infrastructure’ (SDI) denotes the relevant core collection of base data, technologies, policies and institutional arrangements that facilitate the availability of, and access to, geospatial data.

Satellite imagery, such as the image shown above, plays a key role in geospatial systems for emergency management.

GeoConnections is addressing the challenges of geospatial information sharing by promoting common data policies, agreed to by federal, provincial, and territorial agencies, removing barriers to information sharing and encouraging consistent approaches that reduce duplication. GeoConnections, and its collaborators, are promoting national framework data integrated from federal, provincial and territorial sources that provide ‘base’ layers that many users can access to initiate analysis. These layers include positional survey data, international and provincial/territorial boundaries, place names, primary and secondary road ­networks, satellite imagery, and terrain relief. To enable information sharing, GeoConnections is promoting international standards that govern the sharing of geospatial based information to ensure that it is interoperable. These standards are developed through federal, provincial, territorial and international negotiations.

From the foundation of common data and open standards, GeoConnections is supporting across Canada the development of inter-agency decision support systems, similar to the Saskatchewan Situational Awareness project and additional data required by the public safety and security community. The goal of these projects is to offer public safety and security decision-makers an improved ability to mitigate, prepare, respond and recover from emergencies and disasters with geospatial information.

GeoConnections collaborates with organizations from industry, academia, and the public sector on cost-shared projects. Project announcements are advertised on the GeoConnections website Interested parties may register to receive e-mail notifications of new opportunities on the website by selecting the ‘subscribe’ link for registration.  

Philip Dawe is the Program Advisor for Public Safety & Security.
Ken Marshall is a CGDI Content Analyst with the GeoConnections program.
© FrontLine Security 2007