A GIS Nerd Looks at 32

Blog Post created by PDoherty-esristaff Employee on Jan 13, 2015

Last week I announced to the Esri Team that I will be resigning. But not resigning from GIS! – I will now focus my efforts on raising awareness on how geographic information systems (GIS) can be used for Wildland Search and Rescue (WiSAR). This was not an easy statement to make, as I have grown to love my job at Esri and led a team of passionate and knowledgeable professionals, known as the Esri Disaster Response Program.


While 3 years is not a very long time in the scheme of GIS history, I feel our team has accomplished more than I ever could have imagined. We took a start-up business approach to developing a program that can boldly claim “When disaster strikes, Esri’s Disaster Response Program (DRP) is there to support you around the clock, 24 x 7. Request assistance from Esri experts, augment software, explore content, and monitor events online as part of our corporate citizenship”.


This team is leading the way on many innovative GIS initiatives:



In addition we have responded to hundreds of disasters, some notable ones include:



To help this vision become a reality required a good sense of humor, team chemistry, dedication, creativity, partnership, and a safe place to innovate. Responding to support the GIS User Community and Public Safety Agencies during their greatest time of need has repeatedly given me that “really good feeling”. Now the Esri DRP has so much traction and momentum it has become an organic part of the Esri Community and will undoubtedly change the way GIS is used in disaster response forever. A truly great opportunity and I thank all of the Esri staff, Business Partners, Start-ups, and especially the GIS Users I had the pleasure of working with.


So why the move? For love of course.


I love using GIS for Search and Rescue.




Problem: When a person goes missing in urban, rural, or wildland environments, the way agencies respond depends entirely on geography. They may use GIS if they are located in parts of Poland, British Columbia, California, Virginia, New York, or New Zealand – but elsewhere it is more likely they will use outdated paper maps, little to no real-time situational awareness, and gut instinct alone. Geographic information is lost from one operational period to the next and if a person is not found within 48 hours, search managers will likely have to postulate and infer where it is they have searched already.  Then they have to make decisions on what areas to search next with limited or false information because their maps are incomplete or outdated.


I believe that there is a better way to approach the missing person search operation that more effectively leverages geographic knowledge. So do more than 600 other people on the SARGIS listserv. GIS can be used for planning, operations, logistics, finance, and command functions of search management in similar ways to how it is used for Emergency Management or Wildland Fire today. Imagine the use of geographic information being used to increase team safety and increase the likelihood of a successful outcome. Geographic Information such as:

  • Historic search incidents
  • Terrain
  • Manmade & natural features
  • Weather
  • Search effort
  • Team locations
  • Local knowledge


Why don’t search managers love using GIS for Search and Rescue?


In the United States and many other countries, search and rescue teams are composed of volunteer professionals who spend countless hours away from their families to get the training they need in order to be ready for any rescue mission. Yet, if they do not have GIS training in their paid profession, then it is unlikely they will be exposed to the capabilities of GIS for missing person search operations. If they do not know the capabilities, how can you ask them to spend more time in training? Therefore, I make the argument that in order for GIS to become adopted as a part of every search operation:


  • GIS must be used for other SAR activity so it becomes familiar, e.g. mapping incident locations, preventative search and rescue maps, training exercise maps
  • GIS tools for search operations need to become more intuitive and task-focused
  • GIS needs to be accessible at a very low cost


Despite publishing a few research papers on the topic, uptake of GIS in search and rescue operations has been painfully slow. I can no longer sleep well at night unless I feel like we are contributing to awareness of this “better way”. I have the desire to take what I have learned from my time in Yosemite National Park as a Ranger, as a GIS Specialist, and as a participant in the International disaster response community and put it to the test. We have started to do this with projects like MapSAR and IGT4SAR, but it is time to take it to the next level.


What's Next?


In 2015, I will continue to teach University courses but will also focus on the creation of a Non-Profit Organization that can formally train SAR organizations, develop GIS tools, and respond to support missing person search operations when needed. This is not in any way an easy task, but I know it is possible, necessary, and I will be forming a team that can get the job done.


In recent years, organizations like the GISCorps, National Alliance for Public Safety GIS Foundation, Youth SAR of New Zealand, the Canadian National SAR Secretariat, the US National Park Service, University of Wisconsin, University of California, and The Mountain Rescue Association have already made great progress towards institutionalizing the use of GIS for WiSAR. With partners like these I know we can make great strides towards making a real difference.


Please follow the journey on our blog http://wisarandgis.blogspot.com/ and I look forward to working with many of you in the future. We will need your help!