Digital maps help in disaster aid


Published: Friday, January 20, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 20, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
With winds gusting and flames jumping from one spot to another, the most important thing for a firefighter battling a wildfire is knowing exactly where the danger lies.
Now, with computers and GPS, emergency officials in Alachua County say they have a better way to analyze a disaster like a brush fire and quickly get information to firefighters about the blaze instead of relying on pen, paper and someone eyeballing flames.
A person in the air or on the ground can use a computer to wirelessly transmit information to a second computer. It takes the data and, within minutes or less using stored information about the location, produces maps complete with updated details.
"You would track it from the air, transmit that information back to the staging area so crews can actually see where the fire line is," said Fay Walker, a geographic information systems technician with Alachua County Fire Rescue Enhanced 911 Service. If there is a team in the way of the advancing fire, she said, "They would be able to radio them and bring them in and keep them out of harm's way."
The tool, which Walker has been working to develop, is valuable in other situations like a hurricane where landmarks are obliterated.
"In a post-disaster scenario, maybe you have trees that are on houses. Maybe you've got streets that are blocked off because of debris after a storm, and you have mass flooding. Maybe you have power lines down," Walker said. "We can go out into the field with this, whereas before we were waiting on everyone to bring the data to us. And being able to go out into the field and get the data and transmit it back lessens the amount of time it's going to take between when it's discovered, and when it's mapped and when it's given to people to deal with."
It took Walker about a year to develop an air-to-ground program that would provide mapping data, said Susan Nelson, the county's enhanced 911 coordinator.
Flying in the back seat of a helicopter piloted by Alachua County Sheriff's Deputy Richard Bray, Walker tested out the computers last week.
The copter flew over a spot in the San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park, north of Gainesville. From the air, Walker transferred information to another computer on the ground, producing a map that showed the copter's path and, with GPS, provided the location measured in latitude and longitude.
GPS stands for Global Positioning System and refers to satellites in orbit that transmit a low-power radio signal. A GPS receiver analyzes the satellite signals and calculates position.
The idea sounds simple, Nelson said. But behind the maps that pop onto the computer screens are "layers and layers of data."
Making Alachua County's maps digital years ago helps provide Walker with the information she needs when creating a map in an emergency situation, Nelson said.
But, initially, there were other problems Walker had to solve including determining the best way to send the data and what equipment was needed.
Even figuring out how to mount GPS equipment in the helicopter took time, Walker said. She settled on Velcro. Walker also had to determine how to deal with the unforeseen, like being prepared if the helicopter had to take a detour due to smoke or other adverse conditions and getting the computer to pause without altering data collection.
Nelson and Walker hope the program will get grant funding that will provide for a "mobile mapping unit." Costing an estimated $200,000, the unit would include a trailer outfitted with equipment that could be taken to other areas such as places devastated by a hurricane.
The unit would be the first of its kind in operation east of the Mississippi River, Nelson said.
There are at least three other similar units being used on the West Coast, Walker said.
Florida's hurricanes of 2004 pointed out the benefit of the digital mapping, Nelson and Walker said.
When Frances and Jeanne moved through Florida, including Gainesville, emergency personnel found that getting a complete picture of damage meant going to one person about road closures, another about developing sinkholes and others about downed power lines. But, using technicians like Walker, damage details were consolidated and printed out on one map.
"Everything was in one place and whoever needed the data could go right to it," Nelson said. "It just turned out to be so phenomenally useful that we said, 'OK. We have to get on this mobile mapping unit and this air-to-ground program and put these pieces together.'"
Katrina reinforced the need for the program, Nelson said. "When Katrina came through last year, it didn't only effect New Orleans. It effected disaster planning everywhere," Nelson said. While Alachua County has stored digital information that can be used for mapping, she said, "They had no data in place in New Orleans or Louisiana or Mississippi. When you go through and wipe out every single house and every single road sign, there is no place to begin even to start cataloging the damage."
Lise Fisher can be reached at (352) 374-5092 or fisherl@gvillesun.com.

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