Virginia Uses Information-Rich
Super Maps for Help in Emergencies
By Mikel Chavers, CSG Associate Editor
Does GIS—geographic information system—sound too much like techno babble? Well, thousands of Virginia emergency management officials use the technology all the time. In fact, it often is the difference in making a quick, emergency decision to save lives and property versus scrambling to get all the necessary information in a crisis. Virginia uses GIS mapping combined with real-time data in its intuitive Virginia Interoperability Picture for Emergency Response program, nicknamed VIPER.
“Where this really empowers emergency managers, is it frees them up to ask more relevant questions to protect lives and property, and not have to spend as much time digging for information,” said Brian Crumpler, GIS manager for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.
That program won a national Innovations Award from The Council of State Governments this year and is one of only eight state programs recognized with the award.
The program features some really fast maps. Maps so loaded with information that during an emergency, officials can access loads of information to make emergency decisions. For example, during a hurricane, VIPER system users could access wind speed information, pinpointing what specific areas of the state are at risk for the worst winds. That was important during Hurricane Ida where in some places, winds were gusting at hurricane force for several hours, Crumpler said.
Because all kinds of information from National Weather Service data to the locations of shelters throughout the state and from school locations to real-time traffic data, officials literally have instant access to information that used to take hours or days to gather and analyze. That kind of instant access means emergency managers can make decisions faster.
Officials in Virginia tailored the software, originally developed by software vendor ESRI Inc., to fit the state’s specific needs. For example, in August 2008, a major gas pipeline exploded in rural Appomattox, Va., on a Sunday before 7 a.m. The emergency manager on call at the time was, of course, at home. But because VIPER is a Web-based system, he was able to log in and pull up the area affected by the explosion. Because developers had tweaked the system so it would automatically query and display all schools and hospitals nearby, he didn’t even have to hunt for information. It was instantly on his screen map complete with contact information and trauma center information for each hospital within a certain radius.
He then immediately called the nearest hospital to verify it could handle victims from the explosion or if officials needed to divert ambulances to the next closest hospital. That kind of instant action was prompted because of automatic information Virginia has loaded into its VIPER system.
“It saved a lot of time,” said Bobbie Atristain, former chief technology officer for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. Atristain was responsible for customizing the software. She has since moved to the private sector, working to develop similar systems to VIPER full-time with The Timmons Group based in Richmond, Va.
In the same way, the VIPER program and its high-tech maps only show points on the map that have some relationship to an emergency. It’s not just data all thrown together, not a bunch of black dots on the map, said Jeff Sopel, former ESRI account manager who worked with the VIPER program. Sopel is now with G&H International Services Inc., in Washington, D.C.
“It took all the data sources and only showed them where they have context,” Sopel said.
If there’s a hazardous material spill in the state, it has a certain footprint—an area that’s most affected. Users can look at the footprint of a spill in relationship to the locations of the state’s schools—making the map and data system a faster way of visualizing information.
That’s not the same effect of printing out two spreadsheets of lists of the locations of the state’s schools and comparing it to a list of areas affected by the spill, Crumpler said. A map including pictures that illustrate the data has a way of helping people visualize the crisis instantly. With that kind of power, VIPER doesn’t ask the questions or tell users the answers, but it facilitates the right discussion, he said.
“If you don’t know how bad the situation is and you can’t get your arms around the situation, it’s much harder to make sound decisions in a crisis.”