GIS Use to Improve Response of Emergency Services

On September 27, 2008, near Andrews Air Force Base, first responders were delayed in getting to the crash site of a Maryland State Police EMS helicopter. Confusion about the helicopter’s location after the crash significantly stalled the rescuers.

This event clearly demonstrated the need for GIS use by first responders.

Although, the helicopter was equipped with a GPS system that transmitted its last location before the crash, rescuers couldn’t locate it for more than two hours; they weren’t sure about the geographic coordinate system (GCS) the helicopter’s GPS system supplied.

In this situation, the use of GIS could have helped in several ways.

There is GIS software on the market to track and provide real-time positions of any GPS-enabled vehicle or aircraft. If the Maryland State Police Communication Center had been equipped with this system at the time of the crash, along with a staff trained in its use, the last position of the helicopter would have been available via GIS. And the first responders probably would have reached the crash site earlier.

In addition to using GPS coordinates to find the crash site, the location of the site could have been determined by cross referencing transportation, stream and rivers, and vegetation layers loaded into the GIS.

In 2008, GIS real-time GPS tracking software was not available. But even without the latest software, a GIS-trained employee at the State Police System Communication Center could have loaded the coordinates into the GIS with the proper GCS and provided the position of the downed helicopter within minutes.

The GIS operator needed to identify the GCS before entering it into the GIS, which would have decreased the GCS miscommunication experienced by the state police and dispatch center.

The confusion over the format of the helicopter’s last known coordinates highlights the need for a state or nationwide GCS standard. If a GCS standard is established, it would reduce confusion among first responders.

In addition to providing quick location of EMS, police and fire units, GIS can enable the following:

  • Situational awareness in order to understand the activities, events, incident status and overall circumstances of the jurisdiction.
  • The ability to quickly and thoroughly conduct risk assessment and to develop and assess response capability to manage and allocate public-safety resources and staffing.
  • The capability to access critical information and data while responding to an incident (routing, preincident surveys, etc.), resulting in quicker, safer and more intelligent deployment.
  • The ability to more effectively manage all types of incidents—real-time location of public-safety units, exposures at risk, areas suitable for staging, triage—and develop and implement appropriate tactics and strategy.

The use of GIS with a geographic coordinate system standard is necessary for first responders. It would reduce delayed responses like the Andrew Air Force Base incident in 2008. Even if departments like the Maryland first responders have updated their operational procedures and technology since the 2008 incident, every few years, they need to evaluate the technology the use for functionality and update it accordingly.

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