GIS Monitor Article on EmerGeo and WebEOC

Article from – June 16, 2005

The City of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada is upgrading its emergency management software. Having already replaced ESRI ArcView 3.2 with EmerGeo mapping in its Emergency Operation Centre in October 2003, it is now also replacing EM/2000 — produced by Specialized Disaster Systems, Inc. — with EmerGeo’s version of WebEOC, a Web-based system that enables emergency managers and first responders to share GIS mapping and emergency data in real time. EmerGeo Solutions, which is based in Vancouver, developed the mapping system and interfaces to WebEOC to enable emergency staff to use GIS mapping technology without requiring technical expertise. The level of map detail and functionality is tailored to the role and skill level of each user. EmerGeo’s products do not replace any existing GIS, but build on top of the city’s GIS, leveraging its investment in its existing systems and data.

I asked Ron Martin, Vancouver’s emergency planning coordinator, what his organization’s principal requirement is for a GIS. “We need rapid assimilation of data from multiple sources for emergency management purposes,” he told me. Why did his agency switch from ArcView to EmerGeo? “ArcView was meeting our needs, but EmerGeo’s product bundle has tools that are a better match to what we do.” He cited a few examples: an emergency response guide for spills, hazardous materials dispersion models (such as the ALOHA plume model developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), and the ability to analyze ground movement due to earthquakes.

However, when I asked Martin what the single most important reason was for purchasing the new system, his answer was “ease of use.” It takes him a lot less time, he told me, to get his staff trained in the use of this software than it did in the past with other systems. Michael Morrow, EmerGeo’s director of business development, stresses the same point: “ArcView required a GIS technician to operate it. A lot of this software is not used on a day-to-day basis and a GIS technician may not always be available. During an emergency, when people are operating under stress, it is a bad time to train them in the use of new software.”

I asked Morrow about his company’s experience with emergency management. He told me that he has been in the field for about 16 years and that Timothy Webb, the company’s president and chief technology officer, is a Search & Rescue manager and has worked extensively with Emergency Preparedness Canada (now called Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada). So EmerGeo built its systems from the perspective of the managers and staff of emergency operations centers (EOCs). Morrow began working with the City of Vancouver about five years ago.

The City of Vancouver’s GIS office provides the base map and digital orthophotography used by the system. EmerGeo’s mapping application imports these and other data and provides spatial representation of events and a common operational picture to emergency managers and responders. The city has used the software to coordinate its response to emergencies and to plan large public events, such as the annual Celebration of Light Fireworks Festival, which draws about half a million people, and the Stanley Cup playoffs. The software also allows city staff to generate status reports and manage resources. WebEOC is built on top of the mapping application and provides further functionality, including tracking activities and incident logging.

Both the mapping application and WebEOC are Microsoft-based. WebEOC can be hosted, installed locally, or a combination of both (hybrid). The architecture is a standard three tier: the database is Microsoft SQL Server 2000, the Web server is Microsoft IIS 6.0, and clients use Microsoft Internet Explorer Version 5.5 or above.

EmerGeo provides the emergency management data layers: incidents, resources, operational capabilities, etc. It has an emergency management workflow built into it that enables users, for example, to draw an evacuation area on a map. It also allows users to choose to which individuals or work groups to publish specific layers and automatically logs all activities and operations, which is important as an audit trail for legal purposes and for debriefings. The application is based on OpenGIS standards and gives users the option of creating live GIS connectors to any OpenGIS-capable mapping system, including MapGuide, which the city uses.

WebEOC was originally developed by Westinghouse about 15 years ago under a contract with the U.S. Department of Energy, then spun out to the private sector, where it was picked up by Emergency Services Integrators, a company based in Augusta, Georgia, that still considers it its flagship product. EmerGeo, in turn, considers itself “a value-added reseller” of the product. WebEOC’s principal interface model looks very much like a remote control for a television, enabling the user to view electronic status boards and maps. EmerGeo mapping controls the available layers and functionality depending on the user’s role and authorization. Text-based information entered into WebEOC can, in turn, be displayed on EmerGeo maps. As information is updated in WebEOC it is automatically updated in EmerGeo, with a refresh rate set by the user and a control panel that ensures that maps don’t become cluttered and that duplicate information is not being plotted. This allows the system to display a more accurate near-real time picture of the situation. Because EOCs often do not have a computer available for each team member, WebEOC status boards are designed to be readable on projection systems or individual computer displays, providing everyone access to real-time information.

Morrow showed me a demonstration of EmerGeo and WebEOC, using as scenario a hypothetical chlorine spill in Vancouver. On top of the base map used by the city, he turned on a layer of 10-centimeter resolution digital orthophotos; as he pointed out, these images, which appeared very quickly, were cached by EmerGeo’s “Smart Client” (thick client) — although a thin Web browser client can also be used to view them. In addition to the “Planning” tab that Morrow used in his demonstration, I could see three other tabs with map views: “Situation Map”, “Internet”, and “All Project Layers”. When he checked the “Significant Events” box on the main WebEOC control window, an events log appeared. Data entered into this log generates symbols on the EmerGeo map.

EmerGeo manages the map’s dynamic layers, displaying standard U.S. Department of Homeland Security symbols for various incidents, such as the chlorine spill, and resources, such as fire and police vehicles. By clicking on these symbols the user can drill down through various layers of data captured by WebEOC and EmerGeo. For example, clicking on a chlorine spill icon displays not only the latest incident information entered into WebEOC but also critical infrastructure, cadastre, and other map data managed through EmerGeo.

In actual use, field personnel with EmerGeo Smart Clients on their computers would be able to feed updates to the EmerGeo server running in the EOC. However, EmerGeo allows the operator to select which incoming data to auto-plot (geocode) on the map. Users can also draw polygons and associate them with hotlinks, for example to live camera feeds, or control their color based on “status” or “severity” fields. The boundaries and vertices of these polygons can be lat/long coordinates or geographic features, such as streets or rivers. The application dynamically calculates the perimeter and area of these polygons and enables the user to control the publishing of the layer among the different roles in the emergency management organization. Any annotation drawn on the map can be exported to ESRI shapefile format and used in other GIS applications.

WebEOC and EmerGeo work together to automatically log all activities in the system so that, after the emergency or exercise is over, a permanent legal record of events exists (an “audit trail”). This history log is a relational database table that can be queried and from which reports can be generated. Alternatively, the entire log can be exported to Microsoft Excel for additional analysis.

EmerGeo Solutions, Inc. provides consulting services and fully integrated situation awareness technology solutions to help manage risk in Emergency Management, Environment Health & Safety, Security and Business Resilience for government and industry. Our EmerGeo software application provides all decision-makers with timely access to critical information and the decision-support tools needed before, during and after emergencies and major events.

EmerGeo’s unique managed Common Operating Picture (mCOP™) technology allows information stored in siloed systems to be shared securely and in a controlled way among work groups so that all decision-makers are working from the most up-to-date, accurate and validated information available. Our hosted Learning Management System (eLearning) ensures customers can implement our technology and best practices in a cost-effective manner.

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