Disaster Apps

Matthew Billington

There are no blue “H” street signs showing the way to the hospital. The smartphone can’t provide navigation assistance because cellular towers are knocked out. Live wires likely are on the ground, but it’s impossible to know where without a utility map. Critical infrastructure is hidden or destroyed. This is what federal authorities face when they arrive in a town after a tornado or other disaster strikes. 

But a guiding light—a computer-laden firetruck in this case—is there to help. A 44-foot-long vehicle dispatched by the Pentagon, in response to a civilian agency’s call, arrives on the scene with tools to pinpoint where critical infrastructure used to be. 
 
In an age when navigation devices are at least pocket-size, the Defense Department’s Domestic Mobile Integrated 
Geospatial-Intelligence System might seem like overkill. But considering the truck offers hardware, software and network connections similar to those at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters, the DMIGS is a relatively compact gizmo. 
 
“It allows us to extend NGA directly into the field,” says Mark Riccio, a geospatial mission manager for the agency. “You would find a variety of workstations, secured communications capability, pretty much everything we would need to function as NGA, but from a self-contained vehicle.” 
 
A fleet of two DMIGS units, each with up to six analysts inside, taps into information compiled by an interagency program called the Homeland Infrastructure Foundation-Level Data Working Group. The coalition launched in February 2002—after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks—to find a way of consolidating and putting into pictures geospatial information in multiple databases throughout government, industry and academia. The result is the Homeland Security Infrastructure Program, or HSIP—a repository of about 500 layers of mapped-out features, including power plants, riversand roads. This information helps federal response teams pinpoint areas in critical need after a catastrophic event.
 
Sometimes the truck arrives at special events when the weather is clear and all is well. Authorities can use its intelligence tools to predict, for example, the impact of an explosion at the Republican National Convention on the surrounding vicinity. Security planning and VIP protection are among the truck’s extensive duties. Since coming online in 2006, the DMIGS has traveled to numerous political events, including President Obama’s 2008 inauguration, federal officials say. 
 
When asked if a truck would be at this summer’s Republican and Democratic conventions, Homeland Security Department spokesman DJ Harper says, “We can’t speak specifically to individual future uses of DMIGS, but we see great value in them and anticipate a broad range of uses in the department, the federal government, and at the state and local levels.” 
 
The self-powered computer center carries generators and a 2.4-meter satellite dish antenna. Inside, printers and plotters, devices for drawing maps, can deliver directions either on a computer screen or a piece of paper. A high-definition DirecTV setup feeds video into a conference area. 
 
Federal responders can tap into HSIP without a truck when wireless connectivity is available. Map Atlas, an NGA smartphone app, lets on-site crews see pre-strike and post-strike graphics of devastated areas. “Mobile apps are designed to put the power of NGA into their handheld devices” at the scene, Riccio says. The atlas app is designed to function within the Web browser of any smartphone, including those powered by Google’s Android, Apple’s iOS and Research in Motion’s BlackBerry operating systems, he adds. “We’re trying to build apps that are agnostic to device,” Riccio says. 
 
HSIP Compass is another app that has simplified disaster response, according to DHS Chief Technology Officer Dan Cotter. “During Hurricane Irene, when search-and-rescue teams were deploying, they were able to have all the map data that normally
they would need huge paper atlases to see,” he says. The DMIGS also was deployed during the August 2011 storm, when landslides and high winds were expected to plow down power lines and to overflow sewers.
 
Of the app-size database, Cotter says, “It’s all about a person going into a community they’ve never been in before and seeing how to get around.” Homeland Security recently tested a GPS-enabled incident and command app with the National Guard and fire department officials in California, where wildfires typically wreak havoc in the summer. “With GPS, you’ll know where you are. With HSIP, you’ll know what had been there before,” he says. 
 
Chris Diller, geographic information systems coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs, is authorized by federal officials to share year-round a license-free version of HSIP, called HSIP Freedom, with municipal users. Plus, through a new licensing agreement, commercial transportation data always is accessible to states. The full HSIP set is available only to state and local first responders when the president declares an emergency. 
 
“We’ve taken the HSIP Freedom data and I publish that information through our secure environment for local officials all the way down to first responders,” Diller says. 
 
More than a fifth of the program’s data sets are free, including the coordinates of water infrastructure and hurricane evacuation routes, federal officials say. Software from GIS firm Esri crunches the data to show, for instance, speed limits, traffic lights and one-way streets to supply road options for evacuating. 
 
“It’s hugely helpful for planning,” he says, noting that as an emergency specialist, “99 percent of the time, you’re planning; 1 percent you’re responding or recovering.” 
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