ESRI Recognizes San Diego County Officials for GIS Work during Wildfires
GIS Use Improved Communications, Saved Infrastructure, and Assisted in Evacuations
Redlands, California—San Diego County officials were recently recognized for their work using geographic information system (GIS) software behind the scenes during recent wildfires that consumed tens of thousands of acres in Southern California this past fall. ESRI, the world's leading GIS software company, presented Paul Hardwick, GIS unit leader, Office of Emergency Services, with the Making a Difference Award at the ESRI California Regional User Group Meeting held in Sacramento, California, last month. This award is given to people and organizations that use GIS in exceptional ways.
During the 2007 fires, Hardwick and his team used ESRI software to manage a wide range of data and create maps that were critical for directing strategic operations. "Paul's team epitomizes ESRI's vision of how people can use technology to more effectively and responsively run their organizations," says Jack Dangermond, president, ESRI. "They are using it to serve the community in the best ways possible. Their efforts during the San Diego fires were exemplary; lives and property were saved because they had the foresight to apply their past experiences to this crisis, making a significant impact on the outcome of the fires."
GIS is a computer software technology that links geography to information, giving users a much clearer picture of data and allowing many types of analysis to be done. During the fires, this technology helped officials monitor fire activities and share essential information among response agencies and with the public. "With five major fires burning throughout the county, the timely and detailed maps our GIS team was able to produce were critical in our ability to not only coordinate our emergency responders but also provide critical information to the public," says Ron Lane, director of the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services. "The GIS maps we provided to the media and on our Web site were instrumental in helping citizens make the life-or-death decision of whether to evacuate."
"It was rewarding to see ArcGIS being used in real time to aid in the decision-making process throughout this emergency including in the policy room at the Emergency Operations Center," says Tim Craig, ESRI account executive for the San Diego area. "The county's work on a standard operating procedure [SOP] in the wake of the 2003 wildfires led to the efficient use of resources at all levels, from staffing and data capture to analysis and even to plotter paper. The maps being produced showed what was happening in the entire region and served as useful public notification tools. They were ready this time, and it showed in their well-coordinated response effort."
Communication among departments and organizations was much improved with the county's GIS, since the software integrates different information technology systems by ensuring the data is consistent. "GIS-based predictive modeling and mapping led to the evacuation of 2,100 medically fragile, special-needs individuals as well as the containment and removal of hazardous waste before the fire became a danger," says Hardwick. "Using GIS helped us communicate in a more timely and accurate fashion to both the public and other agencies. GIS was instrumental in forming a common understanding of events between all parties involved."
Evacuating people from their homes is not a simple or inexpensive task; using the county's GIS, which combined evacuation data with county demographic data, helped decision makers better understand the true number of people evacuated—an overwhelming 515,000—and their underlying characteristics. "The county developed reentry and recovery plans and assessed the impact of the fires in a remarkable way," says Nate Johnson, manager, California-Hawaii-Nevada region, ESRI. "GIS map images allowed county staff to assess damage to property, assets, and habitat even while the wildfires were still burning. Using a geographic approach to forecast the effects from the fires made it easier to see how best to prioritize efforts in the aftermath of the disaster. Maps provided immediate and vital information such as flood risk, habitat loss, and burned structures. This information proved essential for developing the course for post disaster efforts."