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How public safety GIS saves us when disaster strikes

November 11, 2020 0 Comments
Image: NAPSG [https://www.napsgfoundation.org/]

Image: NAPSG

Tenacity of spirit is one of the great virtues. Supporters of geospatial technology have often had to endure steadfast resolve convincing others of the multi-dimensional value GIS provides. It is a battle best won by seeing and doing rather than by words.

Jack Maple proved the value of GIS to public safety in the early 1990s by using it to fight crime. But, in the context of firefighting and disaster operations, GIS had not been used.

Then, in the early 2000s, due in large part to 9/11, the government’s interest in GIS increased.

It was a necessary evolution. Technologies at the time were rapidly advancing. Computer graphics, computer processing power, the internet, shared databases, GPS, digital imagery, and mobile devices needed to merge. GIS was the only solution to bring them all together.

At the same time, disasters became increasingly destructive. Public safety and emergency management needed solutions, but most of the funding is by the government with tight budgets, so investments into geospatial technologies and specialized staff were limited.

It wasn’t until 2010 that FEMA hired the first Geospatial Information Officer. And, the Geospatial Data Act did not become law until 2018. The need was there but not the resources.

A small group of individuals saw that gap and together they began providing support to the public safety sector. The first organization they were able to work with was the National Association of State Fire Marshalls. Word quickly spread. Soon, other organizations began asking for geospatial services.

Eventually, 11 national organizations came together to provide support, structure and purpose for the fledgling team of GIS volunteers. This group became the founders of the .

Now, 15 years later, NAPSG has contributed to recovery after every major disaster and many minor ones throughout the United States. Its success extends internationally — NAPSG has helped other countries set up their own public safety GIS support teams.

Membership in NAPSG has grown to more than 65,000. Its members are involved in supporting operations for fires, flooding, search and rescue, earthquakes, storm and tornado damage, health crises, chemical spills, and more. They have become central to emergency management operations, helping coordinate efforts of multiple groups through GIS platforms.

During and after events, NAPSG hosts debriefs to evaluate and improve ongoing and future operations. The result advances the field of public safety. NAPSG also provides education to its constituent communities and makes its training available to the public.

NAPSG and its members are highly valued. Every state GIS council has the group as a point of contact. NAPSG is a trusted entity at the community level up through to the highest levels of the federal government, and they are one of the first calls FEMA makes in a crisis.

Tari Martin

Tari Martin

I had the opportunity to interview Tari Martin (GISP), the director of national and federal programs, one of the leaders in NAPSG. Speaking with Tari made me realize that GIS is still early in its adoption phase. Tari is one of the founders of GIS at the state level. Earlier in her career she was the first person in the state of Maryland dedicated to supporting emergency management operations.

She helped build Maryland’s emergency management framework coordinated efforts with the National Incident Management System (NIMS), and she began pulling in federal data such as the Homeland Infrastructure Foundation-Level Dataset (HIFLD) for use in local operations.

Now, Tari serves on the Maryland GIS Council for the Public Safety/Next Generation 911 Subcommittee in addition to her regular duties as a director for NAPSG. Tari also serves as a program manager, working to create a universal symbology for public safety and emergency management.

Maps and map symbology are revered. Map symbology emerged from a long, proud, history of cartography dating back to a time before the Golden Age of Exploration when maps were adorned with beautiful, hand-drawn symbols of wind roses, sea creatures, and exotic plants and animals; including inscriptions, such as that within the cartouche of the Typus Orbis Terrarum (Atlas of the World) by Ortelius in 1573. Therein are inscribed the words from Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, “Quid ei potest videri magnum in rebus humanis, cui aeternitas omnis, totiusque mundi nota sit magnitudo,” which translated means, “For what human affairs can seem important to a person who keeps all eternity before his eyes and knows the vastness of the universe?”

Map symbology has been more an art than a science driven predominantly to support specific purposes, such as navigation, war, surveying, mining, construction and recreation. Additionally, symbologies may not translate across professions, regions or cultures. Even when the symbols are the same, the colors may be different giving symbols different meanings.

Symbols are a visual language, and as the world becomes increasingly smaller and emergency events more international, the need for the language of maps to become universal is necessary. NAPSG has taken on that challenge, coordinating input from multiple stakeholders.

In essence, NAPSG is working with groups like Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA) to create the Rosetta Stone of map symbology for public safety and emergency management, and Tari Martin is one of the central figures working on that project. The symbol library is free and publicly available on the NAPSG website.

Tari also reminisced about her early days when she first got into GIS just before Hurricane Katrina, and how many of her co-workers in Maryland mobilized to go down and help out with recovery operations. She stated that was one of the moments in her career that cemented her understanding for the value of GIS in post-disaster operations. Tari now teaches a course on GIS in Emergency Management for URISA.

NAPSG is involved in cutting-edge technologies helping to shape and educate the public safety community. Its members are working with autonomous vehicles, indoor mapping technologies, augmented reality and virtual reality, wearables, and other opportunities as they arise.

NAPSG makes its content available online. Explore its best practices, guidance and standards, education and training, events, qualifications and credentialing, toolkits and more. Become a NAPSG member at no cost.

Prior articles referenced:


William Tewelow works for the Federal Aviation Administration. He is a graduate of the FAA management fellowship program and while on special assignment to the U.S. Department of Transportation William led a national strategic geospatial project for the White House Open Data Partnership. He is a Geographic Information Systems Professional (GISP) and a Maryland STEMnet Scholar Speaker. He has degrees in Geographic Information Technology and Intelligence Studies, and is currently pursuing a masters degree in Organizational Management. He was among the first in the nation to earn a Geospatial Specialist Certification from the U.S. Department of Labor while working at NASA Stennis Space Center.

William retired from the U.S. Navy after serving 23 years as a Geospatial and Imagery Intelligence Specialist, a Naval Aviator, a Meteorologist, and a Tactical Oceanographer. He is married, enjoys writing, traveling, solving problems, and is fascinated by new technology and historical context. His favorite quote is, “A man’s mind changed by a new idea can never go back to its original dimension.” ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

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