Today I want to talk to about a form of technology that is emerging and can become quite the prepping tool. The technology is almost 20 years in the making but the general public has little awareness of it, despite benefiting from it daily. The last 20 years has seen more user-friendly forms of the technology develop and it is becoming more and more readily available to the public. The technology is loosely termed GIS, or Geospatial Information Systems. When people ask about my major, I oversimplify and tell them I make maps with tools similar to AutoCAD and GPS, and essentially, that is not far wrong. However, that is like saying a router is used to bevel wood and leaving it at that. Both examples have so much more potential than that.
The basic premise of GIS is the interpretation, expression, and analysis of spatial data that is collected by remote sensing and supplemented by other sources for analysis purposes. Though aircraft provide many of the cameras and sensing platforms used by GIS, it is satellites that are the primary workhorses of the technology. There are more satellites than I could ever hope to know of in various orbits around the planet and while a significant number of them are for the governmental and security purposes of various states, there are plenty of commercial satellites, or birds, up there, as well. These birds generally fall into one of two primary purposes. The first purpose is communications. How many of our grandparents from Brokaw’s Greatest Generation could have conceived of being able to watch the BBC or Skynews, the national cricket matches in Sri Lanka in real-time, or talk to somebody on a phone while in the remotest parts of Alaska 50-60 years ago while sitting in a living room in Ames, Iowa? Yet, these communications satellites allow all that and much more. The second purpose is remote sensing. These birds have the sensors and cameras that allow us to predict the weather, analyze environmental disasters, chart vegetation health, monitor water conditions, map out urban sprawl, and countless other applications through their use of the electromagnetic spectrum.
The result of the second purpose is that we have an unprecedented ability to predict, plan for, and respond to any number of conditions that may meet human beings in their existence upon this planet. Government has longed used this technology, especially for military and other national security applications, and the rise of awareness for disaster response at all levels brought this technology all way down into the smallest volunteer fire company in North Star Borough, AK. Response officials from every level of government use this to plan evacuations, predict flood plains, stage response assets, etc. Simply put, GIS is cartography on steroids. With the interactivity that GIS provides, a basic topographical map of an area can be overlaid with a road map that has population breakouts for all population centers. In a matter of minutes, things like fire stations, rivers with flood history, National Guard assets, police stations, hospitals, bridges, interstates, schools, etc. can be identified and spatialyl located and graphically represented on a working map.
Thus, analyses can be conducted and contingencies, such as river flooding, blizzards, chemical plant releases, or whatever could be thought of, can be planned for and implemented in a more efficient and expeditious fashion. Imagine how difficult the task of coordinating the BP oil spill response was for the Coast Guard. Now imagine how much harder it would have been without aerial sensors and imagery to track the oil dispersal and the effectiveness of the clean-up efforts.
Now one may wonder how this technology benefits you in daily tangible ways. How many people have used Google Earth? That is one example of a premier open source and user friendly application and many businesses find it an inexpensive and productive tool. The weather in your area is predicted and mapped with this technology. The real estate developer and his opponents both use this technology. You use GPS technology in your car, boats, and hiking. It is everywhere but seldom recognized.
Recently, I was talking with a professor of mine about the use of GIS in emergency management. We both have a background with emergency management, he from the analysis and planning side of the house and me from the coordination and implementation of the physical response side of the house. From a conversation that began with discussing silver as the money of the future, we ended talking about Katrina and finally to me musing about how GIS could be used with relative ease for non-governmental organizations and individuals to map out their own evacuation or response plans. By researching what relevant infrastructure an area had and postulating about potential disruptions and disasters that might lead to evacuations, one could begin to map out routes that bypassed potential trouble areas or identified potential aid locations, cache points, and rally points. I realized that this could be invaluable to urban and megalopolis sprawl and hinterland dwellers, like myself.
My experiences with the military and in security and emergency response have taught me how to expect what government reactions to certain scenarios would be. For example, living in the DC-Baltimore I-95 corridor, as I do, will mean having relatively safe roads longer than other urban centers, like, say, Detroit or Phoenix. The Federal Government has too much invested in transportation, continuity-of-government, communications, intelligence-gathering, and response infrastructure in this region to let it fall victim to anarchic chaos. As a result, the roads will be one the first things secured by government forces.
The Eisenhower Interstate Road System was one of Dwight Eisenhower’s lasting presidential legacies. Seeing the efficiency of the German autobahn system led him to bring a similar system here to the US for national defense and interstate commerce. The Interstates were designed to be military arteries and potential landing strips for fighter aircraft. During emergencies, control of the road systems can easily be seized by Federal forces by executive fiat. That being said, in a scenario that had a large National Guard or regular military domestic response, the Interstates and the arterial secondary feeder road systems will be controlled for military and government traffic.
Imagine living in a city that has a pandemic or radiological disaster. Many people will want to leave. YOU may want to leave. The government decides to cordon off the region to secure and manage it, leaving you and your family in the hot zone. As the government moves in, they will inevitably secure from the cordon inward toward the core areas. As civil society breaks down under the stress of the disaster, the response forces quickly get bogged down in a plodding advance against hastily formed bands of looters and more organized criminal gangs as they form an insurgency and prey on the local citizenry. In order to gain control, the Interstates and major roadways into and out of the area are blocked with military and law enforcement and the lion’s share of movement is restricted and controlled through threat of arrest and force. The only way out is by knowing the area and using the tertiary and unconventional routes.
The problem is, how many Americans can think laterally and tactically and recognize that not all roads lead to Rome, or in this case, a group of nervous, bored twenty-somethings in uniform with automatic weapons that were raised on a generation of war stories from Iraq and Afghanistan? How many people can look at a drainage culvert and see it as a road crossing? How many people would think to look for a veterinarian’s office, in lieu of a hospital, for immediate lifesaving medical treatment? How many people know where the local police stations or National Guard armories are, in case it is better to avoid them or it is necessary to get to them? Beyond a 15 mile radius of your location, how familiar are you with the infrastructure along your designated routes of evacuation?
My observations lead me to believe that not many Americans meet the criteria above. We are a society of mobile consumers who has the world at our fingertips or within a 15 minute drive. How does one start to overcome this bias? Well, if you are on this site or others like it, then you have started your journey already. Education leads to awareness, awareness leads to changes in thinking, and thinking leads to life safety.
‘By developing a tactical mindset, one can look at their surroundings in a new light. Once one decides to attempt to change their thinking, then infinite possibilities emerge. The next step is to begin to map out your region and evacuation routes. There is a definite mnemonic aspect to writing information down or graphically displaying it that commits much of it to memory. When your relevant information is spatially located on a map and has some background intelligence, then one can begin to analyze their area spatially, in light of different scenarios. In the west, if your home is downhill, especially on eastern slopes, in wildfire country, then you can look at the topography or vegetation maps on forestry websites to make some predictions of fire paths and response routes. Similarly, if you are in an historic hurricane impact area then you can predict what storm surges may do to the infrastructure in your area. A cursory knowledge of geology and mapping during an infamous Exxon gas station leak in Baltimore County, MD alerted many residents to test their water wells and determine if they had been contaminated or not, just a few years ago.
If you and your family have to evacuate your home, would your maps indicate where culverts, marinas, local airports, railroads, storm drains, creeks, ravines and a host of other non-traditional roads were located? How would you locate them and map them out?
First, get intimately familiar with the area by physically driving it. Go for a walk or hike. Take pictures or keep a notebook with you to record what you find. Send notes to your smart phones. Research the area for certain infrastructure on the internet and phone books. Use USGS topo maps and local government and/or Google Earth aerial imagery to enhance your basic road maps. Get a handheld GPS system and map out potential routes and waypoints. To borrow the title of my recurring APN threads, one must think, “Outside of the Box!” The next step is to put it all together. You do not need a fancy computer program, like ArcGIS, though; it is nice to have access to. Get acetate overlays for your base maps with different information on them. An internet search will reveal open-source GIS maps and even GIS programs to help you put this information all together in a coherent fashion.
Organizations may find this easier than individuals, but locate GIS programs at local high schools and community colleges. Approach them and see if the department or students might be interested in mapping out your data as a project or maybe, with a small endowment from you, as an internship. This could give you a professional product that is as good as the data you wish to provide.
In closing, the idea of using GIS technology now before something happens like the lights going out, or worse, to help you plan for contingencies is simply using the governments’ own approach and methods, albeit on a smaller scale, and creating your own threat picture and contingency plans. In the future, if interest is shown, I will develop this idea further and maybe even provide some product examples that one could utilize in developing their own plans.
“Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants: it is the creed of slaves.” William Pitt the Younger