GIS providers poised to help with Virtual USA

Earlier this month, Department of Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the creation of a initiative meant to give police, fire, and rescue personnel access to information during emergencies. The program is called Virtual USA and it will allow first responders across all levels of state, local, federal and tribal government to share location and status information of critical assets – power and water lines, emergency vehicle and ambulance locations, weather and traffic conditions, evacuation routes, and school and government building floor plans – DHS officials said.

Virtual USA currently operates pilot programs in eight states, including Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia and Tennessee. An important component to the information-sharing initiative will be geospatial and geographic information systems (GIS). ESRI and Google Enterprise Earth and Maps already have dozens of successful implementations with law enforcement and infrastructure management departments.

“The promise of Virtual USA–where multiple jurisdictions and disciplines interact and share real-time, actionable information–will enable greater interagency collaboration,” Russ Johnson, Public Safety Industry manager at ESRI, said in a statement announcing support for the program. “It will also deliver a new level of comprehensive situational awareness.”

ESRI provides geospatial information for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Virginia Department of Emergency Management, Eugene Police Department (EPD) in Oregon, and earlier this summer the company partnered with Microsoft to develop its Fusion Core Solution, a public safety and homeland security solution architecture.

According to ESRI, their work in Virginia highlights the benefits of GIS for first responders and emergency management professionals. The state’s Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) launched the Virginia Interoperablity Picture for Emergency Response (VIPER) using ESRI technology. “In addition to providing a Web-based common operating picture and analysis tools, VIPER integrates with numerous information systems and links with approximately 250 data feeds,” the company said.

Likewise, Google’s Enterprise Earth and Maps software is used by many states to help coordinate information from multiple sources. Some of Google’s customers include San Bernadino County, Ca., the South Florida Water Management District, Alabama’s Department of Homeland Security, and the New York State Department of Transportation.

According to one report, the success of Google’s work with Virtual Alabama helped inspire DHS’ Virtual USA. Virtual Alabama is “a visualization system that provides common operating picture for the state of Alabama,” Chris Johnson a program manager of Virtual Alabama said.

After a tornado went through Enterprise, Ala., state authorities decided to use Google Earth to create data mashups from an array of sources across the state’s 67 counties and make it available to first responders. Since last year, the program has spread to other state agencies for environmental management, economic development, and situational awareness.

Charles L. Werner, Charlottesville, Va., fire chief and Virtual USA GIS Working Group chair, says that GIS technology is the future of information sharing. “I have seen firsthand how VIPER has and continues to revolutionize information sharing throughout public safety and across all levels of government. Virtual USA has created a momentum that will enhance this capability exponentially and change the way we see, understand, and share data,” he said.

Virtual USA is being built with open data standards and open source software, DHS officials said, and as more states and localities join the information exchange, the increased amount of data sharing, communication, and collaboration will improve all aspects of emergency management.