Using GIS to Manage Civil Disturbances in Charlottesville

Blog Post created by b_martinez-esristaff Employee on Aug 27, 2018

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 publicsafetyinfo@esri.com.