Harnessing GIS during emergencies

Jim McLaughlin, Section Manager, and Steve Stone, Application Support Technician, Public Works Maintenance, City of Eugene, Oregon; Justin White, Application Systems Analyst, Information Services Division, City of Eugene, Oregon

After a severe and unexpected wind storm damaged many of the trees in the southern Willamette valley, the cleanup began. Many of the City of Eugene's public works staff worked at prioritizing and managing the hundreds of service requests for damaged and downed trees. The majority of the information collected during the event ended up on flip charts, legal pads and sticky notes. Collecting and organizing this information was a complex process that staff felt could be better managed. Maintenance Division Manager Jeff Lankston asked staff to develop a software application that could track incoming calls in real time and provide the appropriate dispatch information for emergency events such as wind storms, flooding events, and snow and ice storms.

Over the past couple of years, staff from the City of Eugene's Information Services Division (ISD) along with staff from Public Works Maintenance (PWM) operations have developed a very robust computer application called the Emergency Command Center (ECC) application. The ECC application resides on the desktops of up to fourteen call takers at PWM. These call takers use the ECC application to post service requests to a database for dispatch. The call taker module of the ECC application was designed to be simple and user friendly. During the call-taking process, operators reference real-time information and cross reference current address and intersection information to post service requests online.

Snapshot of the GIS window, which allows users to instantly view information.

The real-time information is provided to emergency managers via an onscreen GIS map showing all existing posted requests. Prior to the development of the ECC application, managing requests for service related to emergency events was awkward, complicated, and labor intensive. One of the most complex problems was managing a single problem called in by several citizens. This would create multiple individual service requests for the same issue. The ECC application's real-time display now allows staff to confirm if the issue has been previously called in and posted. This avoids the creation of confusing multiple service requests for an individual incident.

The backbone of the ECC application is a GIS database that allows the user to instantly view information and post a request to an individual address or street intersection via a self-sorting input window. Once the subject location is found, final adjustments to the specific location can be made by graphically moving the target icon with drag and drop functions. Once all of the appropriate information is collected, the service request is posted.

The dispatch module of the ECC application tracks onscreen all of the current service requests, including requests that are active, pending and completed. A filter function allows the user to customize the display to manage the complexity of the view. The dispatch application also allows for the tracking of equipment and personnel with the appropriate detail needed for federal accounting and reimbursement. The tracking of the equipment and personnel resource is initiated once the service request has been assigned to a crew by the dispatcher.

One additional enhancement that is currently being testing is an automated vehicle location (AVL) function. Utilizing the existing RF radios in the service vehicles, staff has coupled a GPS transmitter to the radio that signals the location, direction and speed of the vehicle to a base station. This information is then converted into GIS data that is displayed on the dispatch screen. This functionally is found to be very helpful, especially while managing the deployment of plows and sanders during snow and ice events.

The development of this application was completed by ISD and PWM staff. In case power or network connections are interrupted, the ECC application was designed as a stand-alone version. The GPS data is transmitted via an in-house radio network, which is also designed to be fail safe during a major electrical disturbance.

The development of the ECC application reflects the City of Eugene's commitment to the use of GIS-based information systems and procedures that are user friendly and effective during emergency events.

Jim McLaughlin can be reached at (541) 682-4912 or jim.t.mclaughlin@ci.eugene.or.us; Steve Stone can be reached at (541) 682-4898 or steve.b.stone@ci.eugene.or.us; and Justin White can be reached at (541) 682-5857 or justin.b.white@ci.eugene.or.us.