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All Places > Public Safety > Blog > 2018 > August

By Mike Cox, Fire and EMS Industry Manager, Esri


Around the world, fire and emergency medical services (EMS) agencies of every size use spatial data to improve their preparedness, response, and risk reduction programs. Agencies gather reliable, actionable information that every fire and EMS professional can use anytime, anywhere.


The challenges for public safety agencies are complex, and they continue to evolve every day. There are more demands on agencies from an aging population, the increasing severity and frequency of disasters, and the fact that the role of public safety is changing as we strive to keep our communities livable. The health of a community depends on the effective operation of its public safety agencies, and geographic information system (GIS) technology can improve that effectiveness.


The City of Charlottesville, Virginia, dealt with one of these emerging threats in August 2017. The Charlottesville Fire Department was able to leverage GIS capabilities to manage a significant civil disturbance and provide for the safety and accountability of public safety personnel. Esri technology was used to improve planning, communication, and collaboration. GIS enabled faster decision-making for a safer, more efficient response. Responders developed situational awareness, managed resources, and made sound decisions based on reliable data.


The Charlottesville Fire Department and its partners in fire, EMS, emergency management, law enforcement, and the health care system experienced a series of unprecedented events that led to the largest deployment of public safety assets in the Commonwealth of Virginia since 9/11, and quite possibly the largest-ever deployment of the Virginia State Police.


The Unite the Right Rally drew over 600 members of the alt-right movement along with many organized national protest groups (some with a history of violence), three heavily armed militias, clergical groups, national political figures from across the political spectrum, many local citizens, and international media.


The unified commanders understood the importance of a common operating picture for the local, state, and federal agencies involved in the response. This common operating picture had to support the objectives that were developed during the incident action planning process. These objectives included

  • Ensuring responder safety.
  • Providing triage, treatment, and transportation of the injured and ill.
  • Supporting law enforcement operations.
  • Providing for responder rehabilitation and medical needs.
  • Maintaining emergency services coverage to the larger community.


The Virginia Department of Emergency Management's (VDEM) regional all hazards incident management team (IMT) was deployed to assist at the event. The team immediately began leveraging GIS capabilities as part of the planning process. VDEM and IMT GIS personnel coordinated with the City of Charlottesville's GIS department to produce incident-specific products to manage this special event. A request for support was submitted to Esri's Disaster Response Program to provide additional GIS resources.


One of the first requirements addressed by GIS personnel was to define the area of operations and produce an incident map. The same map would be used in all additional products and provided to all decision-makers. This map could be updated in real time, so all responders viewing the map would immediately have an updated, verified map view. This prevented the distribution of multiple versions or outdated mapping products.


This common operating picture clearly defines what areas would be managed by the unified command structure, and what areas would remain the responsibility of day-to-day operational resources. Any incident or resource request that fell outside the geofenced area would be handled according to normal response procedures. Those incidents within the geofenced area were to be handled by the unified command for the event.


Through the incident action planning process, command personnel were able to establish a management structure that best suited the geographic features of the operational area. As an example, the fire and EMS resources were managed in operations with the following command structure.

Participating public safety agencies, the IMT, and VDEM personnel combined each agency's individual operations plan into one unified incident action plan and thus into one common operating picture. Response resources were identified for real-time tracking to allow the closest appropriate unit to be identified and dispatched based on incident type. The Esri Disaster Response Program provided GeoEvent Services for resource tracking in real time.


This model not only allowed the dispatching of the closest appropriate resource, but it also increased responder safety and accountability. Command personnel could identify the location of mobile assets, such as walking teams, for deployment as needed.


The capability to identify the location of resources became critical as the event escalated. The increasing call load required the quick establishment of task forces made up of multiple agencies. The command staff was able to identify the available resources, pinpoint their location, and determine the best method of deployment. This would not have been possible without the ability to track response resources in real time. The map below captures the available resources that were located at the incident base.



The protesters and counterprotesters began arriving at 0900 while some public safety personnel were still in operational briefings. It became immediately obvious that separating the groups would not be possible without significant, high-risk law enforcement engagement with hundreds of armed protesters and counterprotesters. The driving operational concept of keeping the two groups separated broke down almost immediately, resulting in chaos and conflict.


As conditions devolved, resources could only operate safely with multiagency coordination. The common operating picture provided by GIS allowed command staff to join responders from any agency to perform lifesaving operations while being monitored from the command post.


Several key takeaways were identified during the after-action review. This review involved all agencies that responded to the event. Lessons learned included the following:

  • Technology provides the flexibility to redeploy resources in an appropriate command structure. Units will be pulled together from different agencies and different disciplines.
  • Resources will not be deployed from a static location.
  • Command personnel must be able to determine the closest appropriate resource.
  • Personnel accountability during the event is critical for responder safety.
  • Operations would have failed without Incident Management Team support.


It should be noted that a similar gathering occurred in Charlottesville during August 2018. Several groups assembled to mark the anniversary of the 2017 event. The 2018 event had a better outcome, in part due to the further adoption of GIS technology. Chief Baxter of Charlottesville Fire Department noted several issues that impacted the successful deployment of multiple local and state public safety agencies.


The first, most important step in fully leveraging GIS for large events is to ensure that all participating entities understand and are committed to the importance of creating a common operating picture. The key agencies in the Charlottesville summer 2018 incident shared that commitment from day one, thereby allowing them to maximize the capabilities of the GIS platform.


GIS was an essential component in the planning process and in the execution of the Incident Action Plan. The common platform allowed commanders to rapidly develop a clear understanding of the defined area of operations, deploy and track resources during a dynamic event, and maintain emergency services coverage to the larger community.


GIS was also essential in providing regional situational awareness. This was the basis for the successful deployment of over 1,200 personnel across multiple jurisdictions in response to rapidly developing threats on the ground over several operational periods.


Public safety agencies worldwide already have access to many of the capabilities used during this significant incident. These capabilities are applicable to daily operations, disaster response, planning activities, and many other areas of public safety agency operations.


If you have any questions about deploying these capabilities for your agency, please feel free to contact Esri


by Ryan Lanclos, Esri Director of Public Safety Industries


With fiery lava flow from Hawaii’s erupting Kilauea Volcano prompting urgent evacuation orders, one might expect the last thing on residents’ minds would be cleaning house. Yet, many locals of Leilani Estates, a neighborhood now mostly destroyed, not only took the time to clean their homes, they also did extra gardening, planted fresh flowers, and left offerings to honor the volcano that was threatening their homes.


This last-minute preparation paid respect to Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess. Kilauea Volcano continues to wreak havoc in spectacular fashion, spewing billions of gallons of molten lava across the landscape of Hawaii’s Big Island and into the ocean. But the Hawaiian people are pragmatic and accepting, viewing Pele’s activity as part of the natural process of destruction and creation that forms the Hawaiian Islands. They clean their homes to return them to Pele in a good state, since they believe she gave them the land in the first place.


This ongoing eruption of the Kilauea volcano, which started in early May 2018, continues to shock geologists. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) notes that such an event is unprecedented in the past 200 years, and there’s no telling how much longer it will continue. Already, the Halemaʻumaʻu crater has grown to seven times its previous size by volume, creating almost 700 acres of new land. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed and more are still at risk. Yet, the threat to lives has ebbed significantly since the early days of the eruption when evacuations and search and rescue operations, including a drone strike team, went into full force.

Pele offerings

The Hawaiian people pay homage to Pele, the volcano goddess, by leaving offerings to be burned up as the lava advances.


First (robot) responders

Among those responding to the volcanic eruption were a new breed of emergency responders: robots from the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue, or CRASAR. A five-person team of highly trained volunteers from CRASAR deployed to Kilauea a few days after the eruption. They brought a fleet of small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS), commonly known as drones, to assist in the rescue operations.


CRASAR, a nonprofit organization, champions the use of small unmanned vehicles in emergency response. Disasters present dangerous and sometimes life-threatening scenarios to first responders. Disaster robots can go where people or emergency response dogs can’t, minimizing the risk to life. CRASAR assisted at the World Trade Center on 9/11, and since then has supplied robotic assistance for 28 disasters including earthquakes, building collapses, floods, nuclear accidents, tsunamis, and underground mine explosions.


Kilauea provided a new challenge to the team, and they executed the first known use of drones in emergency response to a volcanic eruption. While drones have been used previously to map volcanoes, CRASAR’s fleet was the first to use them to officially aid disaster response. The team’s participation also freed up drone resources from the University of Hawaii at Hilo to focus on geological observations during those crucial first days.


Breaking this new ground made an impact on the experienced team. Justin Adams, president of CRASAR, described their encounter with Pele vividly:

“It was unique. I’ve never dealt with lava before. None of us have. We’ve dealt with mudslides, and we tried to compare it to mudslides. But just the color of the lava, the sparkling of it burning up the vegetation and trees, looked like blood flowing down the side of the mountain. It looked like arteries because of the way it was pulsing.”


Ground truth by drone

Over a six-day period, from May 14 to May 19, CRASAR flew 44 drone flights, 16 of which happened at night. These missions were invaluable, since manned aircraft such as helicopters were prohibited to fly at night. The crew staged the drone flights from restricted-access roads near the volcano, driving their vehicle through the eerily quiet evacuation zones and moving locations often to follow and map the lava flows.


During these flights, the drones were outfitted with thermal sensors. They identified a new fissure (Fissure 8, which continues to expel lava months later), mapped the lava fronts using thermal cameras, and provided data to the USGS to help determine the speed of lava flow.


To capture the data, a drone would hover above the front edge of a lava flow, take an image straight down, and note the GPS coordinate of that image. Several minutes later, the drone would follow the leading edge of the flow to its new location and repeat the procedure. This was a much safer maneuver than previous USGS data collection, according to Adams.


“They had been gathering data by a person getting close to the lava, taking a GPS coordinate, waiting, and trying to walk down in front of the lava flow to take another GPS coordinate,” he said.


During the day, drones mapped fissures and measured dangerous sulfur dioxide emissions, reducing the number of costly helicopter flights needed.


In one daytime mission, emergency personnel received an alert that someone might be in danger in an isolated house. One of CRASAR’s drones quickly deployed to verify. Known as “ground-truthing,” emergency responders must validate the accuracy of incoming information, especially when it can mean the difference between life and death.


“Citizens were calling in reports, so first responders called CRASAR and we had a strike team that would go and do validation of air quality, lava flow, or lava extent,” Adams said. “We acted as an on-demand task force crew.”

thermal image

The CRASAR team used a thermal sensor to map the lava fronts, cutting through the smoke to show the lava extent.


Expertise, experience, and technology

Many factors contributed to the effectiveness of CRASAR’s efforts during the emergency response. Three stand out: technical and scientific expertise, disaster training and experience, and specialized software.


The CRASAR team members’ expertise fostered good communication with other first responders and the USGS. Their scientific backgrounds allowed them to speak the same language as the scientists and engineers involved.


Experience with previous disasters prepared the CRASAR team for Kilauea. They knew which questions to ask in an emergency and what their drones could do to assist the operation.


Finally, they used specialized software to automatically tag images with their locations. They visualized the information in real time on a digital map by using geographic information system (GIS) technology. They employed another application to take panoramic aerial photos automatically instead of manually, expediting situational awareness.


“CRASAR has equipment and technology that was placed above what we’re used to,” said Christian Wong, Executive Director, Hawaii Science and Technology Museum. “In particular, their capability to do 360-degree views of an area very quickly. They used a lot of pre-programmed applications with their drones that are able to do certain tasks that normally, if you relied on a pilot, might take a little while to get done and it wouldn’t be as efficient.”


Next steps for Kīlauea drone response

The CRASAR team’s work was a success. They reduced cost and risk, and increased situational awareness for all involved responders, government agencies, and the public. The team hopes this will build support for future use of robots in disaster response and public safety.


While CRASAR has completed its official operations in Hawaii, the team remains on standby, communicating with first responders often and ready to deploy again should the situation change.


The work of drones at Kilauea continues with the University of Hawaii at Hilo performing daily monitoring of the eruption, as reported by CNN. The drones provide a reliable stream of visual information helpful in communication with the public during this kind of emergency.


“The visual data drones collect is very useful in helping show the people why they’ve been evacuated from certain areas,” Wong said. “Once they see the devastation and damage, they understand why they cannot be let back to their homes.”


Wong noted that CRASAR’s participation had an unexpected outcome. It inspired local students from Hawaii’s Big Island to start creating their own disaster robot designed specifically for volcano response.


While the Hawaiian people feel Pele will always be unpredictable— taking and giving land according to natural cycles—emergency responders and scientists can now fly drones above a volcanic eruption for a safer way to observe and measure her awe-inspiring power.


Learn more about how drones are being used for social good and humanitarian missions in this Esri & The Science of Where Podcast.