GIS: Applications for emergency, crisis and risk management

Geographical information is often shared between organizations through ESRI shape files.  A shape file is a data interoperability standard developed by ESRI.  ESRI is the top dog in the GIS community.  Many geographical applications will create shape files so it isn’t limited to just ESRI approved software.  Another common file format is Keyhole Markup Language (KML).  This standard is associated with Google Earth, but becoming more widely used.  The National Hurricane Center provides their data in multiple formats on their website.

A virtual globe is a geographic data model that adds information such as elevation and the Earth’s sphere to give the impression of a 3D globe on a 2D screen.  There are over 30 different virtual globes and the list continues to grow.  Some of the current ones are listed at  Each one will have different features, such as: zoom, tile, rotate, overlays provided, custom overlays, queries, and analysis.

Google Earth is an example of a virtual globe.  Most of the data resides on a remote server.  Images are streamed over the internet to the client that assembles the mode.  The graphical information is limited to just what is show on the screen.  As the user zooms in, the broad low-resolution images are replaced with smaller higher-resolution images.  Blurry images that get progressively sharper are evidence of this process.

Geographical data forms the basis to create geographical models of damage.  Using accurate geographical data makes a large difference in modeling.  On the large scale, it is how mountain ranges impact weather.  On the urban scale, it is the movement of air between buildings forms and how it will speed up or slow down the dispersion of airborne particles.  Without the details of these structures, model would be less scientific and more guesses.

HAZUS-MH analyzes potential losses from floods, hurricane winds and earthquakes. Estimates of hazard-related damage are produced before, or after, a disaster occurs.  HAZUS can estimate losses in terms of physical damage, economics, and population.

Potential loss estimates analyzed in HAZUS-MH include:

  • Physical damage to residential and commercial buildings, schools, critical facilities, and infrastructure;
  • Economic loss, including lost jobs, business interruptions, repair and reconstruction costs; and
  • Social impacts, including estimates of shelter requirements, displaced households, and population exposed to scenario floods, earthquakes and hurricanes.

CAMEO is a collection of applications created by EPA’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office (NOAA) of Response and Restoration.  The primary purpose is to plan and respond to chemical emergencies.  The CAMEO system integrates a chemical database and a method to manage the data, an air dispersion model, and a mapping capability.

The Consequences Assessment Toolset (CATS) was developed by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA).  It is available free to response organizations.  The suite of tools can be used during the entire lifecycle of a disaster to help create planning scenarios, analyze information during the response to help with decision making, and gather data after the response to for after action reporting and lessons learned.

Here is an important tangent.  Before you use a tool or model, it is important to know who designed it and for what purpose.  Adapted models or a model’s secondary use need to be used carefully.  Even with the primary use of a model, check the assumptions.  Assumptions may have changed since the tool was created.  Slight changes in the assumptions or input can have significant impacts when the output is logarithmically scaled from the input.

This PowerPoint provides some examples of how GIS information can help managers understand the risks of a current or future incident.  GIS_Applications slide deck.