GIS Technology Helps Agencies Visualize Emergency Situations

As technology becomes more prevalent in society, the world grows smaller. People’s desire to map out the world around them seems only natural, whether it’s for places they’ve never been to or for their own neighborhood. Geographic Information System (GIS) technology makes that possible, not only for civilians, but for public safety agencies as well. However, agencies must understand why GIS is important and be willing to budget for the costs associated with it.


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From dispatch to crime prevention to emergency management, geographic analysis plays an integral part in the lives of dispatch personnel and law enforcement officers. Agencies may have all of the data they need on criminals, incidents, property, and more, but it could span thousands of pages and take hours to analyze in a way that could help the agency make informed decisions. GIS is used to gather, analyze and display geographical and spatial data. Besides physical features of an area, GIS technology can help law enforcement agencies map incident data—both as a dispatch tool and an Intelligence-Led Policing (ILP) tool. Plotting data on a map helps personnel quickly see trends and patterns that exist in their community, as well as how those trends have changed over time.

Todd Turner, GIS team lead in Spillman Technologies’ Technical Services Department, said that GIS technology for law enforcement is all about getting the right people to the right place at the right time.

“I would say at this point in history, that’s one of the most important things in our software. It’s not really an option to not have good quality GIS anymore,” Turner says. ”There’s got to be a dedicated, conscious effort to have good GIS.”

In order to apply this type of technology, agencies must understand the cost. While some agencies are able to employ a dedicated GIS specialist, many have partnered with their city or county to help with costs. Turner believes one of the main reasons agencies have difficulty justifying the cost associated with having an up-to-date GIS system is because it is so prevalent in everyday life.

“Everyone holds Google Maps in their hands for free, so agencies tend to think that mapping shouldn’t cost very much,” Turner said. “In reality, that technology requires a significant investment.”

Unfortunately, just because similar technology is available at the public’s fingertips doesn’t mean it’s readily accessible to public safety agencies. However, Turner said, GIS capabilities are too critical nowadays and agencies across the industry need to plan for the associated costs, such as equipment, training and personnel, so they can meet the expectations of their community.


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Spillman Technologies strives to help agencies meet those expectations and improve the role of GIS in the industry today. Josse Allen, geobase specialist in Spillman’s Training Department, refers to GIS as “spatial intelligence” and said the majority of daily tasks performed by public safety officials are centered on geographic location.

“GIS is an essential tool for informed decision-making and organizing operations, both routine and special events,” Allen said.

When it comes to Computer-Aided Dispatch software (CAD), location plays a vital role. Dispatchers need to know where a call is coming from and which field personnel can get there the fastest. For example, with Spillman’s CAD Mapping module, every CAD call appears on a jurisdictional map with all units displayed in the correct location. This helps communication centers (as well as other public safety officials) make the best decision in getting aid to those in need.

Although criminal activity is one of the major concerns for public safety agencies, emergency preparedness and disaster relief efforts also rely on GIS. In 2014, the Central United States Earthquake Consortium partnered with GIS industry leader, Esri, to conduct an emergency exercise in which a catastrophic earthquake hit in the middle of the U.S. The simulation was an effort to address data sharing issues that have been a problem in past emergency disasters. With GIS technology at work, personnel were able to access 18 categories of critical information, such as damages and hospital statuses throughout the area. Most importantly, they were able to seamlessly share this data with first response teams across the participating states. This simulation demonstrates how GIS can bring data together during a time of a major crisis, especially during emergencies that cross county lines.

As GIS capabilities become more vast, ease of use for end users becomes more critical. Although GIS for public safety has been controlled mainly by GIS experts in the past, it is now starting to become more accessible and simpler to use for the “non-GIS professional,” Allen said. “We see this with agencies being able to do their own data editing and analyzing,” he said. Allen showcased this idea by giving an example of an agency obtaining guest lists from nearby motels and cross checking the list against internal databases, giving officers a visual road map of a suspect’s travels. Although this process is not fully automated yet, he said, it has been shown to greatly improve arrests and prevent crime.

“For the first time, the innovation possible through expanding GIS technology is more in the hands of end users than it is GIS professionals,” Allen said. “This will undoubtedly open up avenues for even more integration and functionality.”

Whether an agency uses GIS technology for crime analysis or CAD mapping, it has a role to fill in each public safety agency. Learning about GIS capabilities gives public safety personnel the power to create a more efficient and up-to-date process in their department.