Emergency Response

Not When, but Where

For most of human history, emergencies have taken us by surprise, whether acts of God or human-caused events, and emergency response has generally been reactive. You maintain your equipment, you stay alert and train, and you spring into action when something happens.


People walking through flood waters wearing plastic over their feet and lower legs


But what if emergency response can be not about playing catch-up but about building intelligent immune systems—regional, national, and local—that interconnect our society? What if we can worry less about "when" because we're able to pinpoint "where"?

As a matter of fact, a profound change is taking place in how local municipalities, state and federal agencies, and other organizations prepare for and respond to emergencies. Thanks to web-based location intelligence and a rising geospatial consciousness integrated into intelligent digital maps, we can analyze the complex interconnections among the natural and human-made systems within a particular location. 

We can respond with both the speed and precision required to know exactly where to start the backfires to contain a wildfire, exactly which blocks to evacuate before a hurricane, exactly which areas to quarantine in a pandemic. We can not only intervene early to reduce cascading challenges, but we can also use maps that tap people's inherent geographic thinking to mobilize them as active participants in preparedness initiatives when action is critical or to aid in recovery within the community.

Today, we are seeing the power of "where," of a new understanding of place.


Fire map showing the probable areas of fire spread for a California fire


Wildfires: The United States Forest Service's model provides information about the distribution and types of trees, bushes, and other ground cover; data on rainfall, snowfall, sunshine, and temperature; how much moisture the vegetation holds; and construction materials used in an area. It even includes the diameters of tree trunks and the sites of clogged culverts (which alter patterns of water flow). Users can predict when and where a wildfire is likely to produce terrifying phenomena such as "fire whirls," which can snap and hurl trees; pairs of counterrotating "horizontal roll" fire vortices that form in midair but can make ground fall; and "flame fingers" that have reached firefighters even 100 meters from a fire's edge.

Hurricanes: When Hurricane Florence approached the Carolinas in mid-September 2018, city officials in New Bern, North Carolina, used data from Esri's ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World along with information on street closures and shelters to create online public maps that showed these critical features, as well as the local stream gauges, wind velocity, and even power outages in real time. This proved indispensable when the nature of the storm changed several times. "It turned out to be a flood event," said Charlie Kaufman of the South Carolina Emergency Management Division. Regional authorities could tell from their location intelligence-infused maps not only that they would need to evacuate 170,000 residents but that 22,000 households did not have a vehicle and would need to be provided with transportation. 

Tornadoes: Given the volatility of tornadoes, the focus is on immediate lifesaving response, like search and rescue, and on speeding up recovery. Delivery of recovery funding has become dramatically faster due to location intelligence systems and a national building footprint and parcel dataset, which allow for quicker calculations of damage to homes and structures. What used to take the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) five or six days, it now does in less than 24 hours.


Relief workers deliver jugs of water to a disaster site


These same technologies, skills, and systems have been applied to transform emergency response ranging from refugee crises to combat zones to the clearing of landmines to 911 calls to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) monitoring food and drug safety. Recent events related to the novel coronavirus pandemic have highlighted the value of location intelligence at the intersection of disaster response and public health—a new field termed Public Health Emergency Management. From mapping cases through modeling the spread of the disease and allocating resources, the element of place is critical throughout.

Perhaps nothing so clearly illustrates the profound transformation made possible by geospatial awareness and a new sense of place as its impact on what is arguably the world's best-known disaster responder. The Red Cross's digital system, RC View, provides situational awareness, a common operational picture, and real-time data, enabling it to project the course of a specific event into the near future and optimize the decisions and actions of its 80,000 staff and volunteers, as well as an extended network of government agencies and community partners. "It's no exaggeration to say that RC View has transformed the Red Cross," says Harvey Johnson, senior vice president for Disaster Cycle Services. "It has enabled us to map the geography of disaster."

By Ryan Lanclos, director of Public Safety and Disaster Response for Esri.