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Amanda Nargi, a Geomatics Analyst for EagleView
Amanda Nargi, a Geomatics Analyst for EagleView
Amanda Nargi has been a Geomatics Analyst for EagleView, which merged with Pictometry International, for three years. She is passionate about the field of indoor mapping and its potential impact on emergency services and first responders. Amanda received her degree in Writing from the State … More »

Navigating Emergencies, Preventing Tragedies: Indoor Mapping for Public Safety

November 29th, 2016 by Amanda Nargi, a Geomatics Analyst for EagleView

What had begun as a typical spring Tuesday had, by early afternoon, turned into a tragedy at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. That day, two Colorado teens killed 13 people and injured 24 more in a school shooting that would forever change the face of emergency planning and response.

The event left communities around the United States grappling with just how unprepared they were to respond to or even prevent such tragedies. Since then, it has shaped emergency response tactics for law enforcement but not without first exposing the vulnerabilities of schools and other public buildings in America.

In recent years, geospatial technology has led the way in solutions for emergency planning, prevention, response, and recovery. Yet public safety personnel need a view beyond a building exterior. What these violent events have shown, time and time again, is that a view inside a building is just as critical in a life or death scenario.

The difficulties in navigating emergencies

Public safety personnel are trained to respond to violent incidents. However, they often face severe limitations before or during their response – something that became clear during the Columbine shooting.

For instance, public safety professionals are lucky if they receive more than a paper map or a set of outdated blueprints to direct them through a building. These resources could be years or even decades old, so new additions and room numbers may be incorrectly represented or missing altogether.

Such was the case during the Columbine massacre. In fact, when the SWAT team responded and joined local police in a perimeter around the school, the school’s vice principal could only provide them with hand-drawn diagrams.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a lack of spatial information can create numerous challenges for first responders and victims alike during such incidents. For one, the officers who respond to active shooter events place themselves at risk. A study from the Police Executive Research Forum found that approximately one-third of all officers who respond to shooters alone have been shot.

Yet civilian victims are most likely to suffer, especially when emergency medical services (EMS) personnel can’t enter a volatile scene.

William David Sanders, a computer and business teacher at Columbine High School, was one of those victims. After being shot in the neck and back, he made his way to a science lab on the school’s second floor; there he waited for three hours, only receiving first aid from a student in the lab. Although Sanders was still alive when the SWAT team reached him – fully two hours later – he did not survive long enough for paramedics to administer treatment.

With nothing more than a hand-drawn map, navigating the school to find victims posed a challenge to emergency personnel. Not only did the shooters have weapons, but they had placed several pipe bombs throughout the building. With an active shooter incident and a bomb threat occurring simultaneously, there just wasn’t enough information to get first responders through the school safely that day.

Better imagery = saved lives

The first time the link between spatial intelligence and public safety occurred to me I was at a conference in Tennessee. A public safety product manager in the field of aerial imagery told us a story about a police officer pursuing a suspect on foot and the 9-1-1 operator who was on call with him. At the end of a property line, the suspect jumped a fence, and the officer followed – straight to the bottom of a cliff face. He survived but endured serious injuries. Meanwhile, the suspect had known about the drop and clung to the fence out of harm’s way.

We saw examples of the types of maps that the 9-1-1 operator would have had access to in this situation. Unfortunately, none of them could have warned the 9-1-1 operator – and, subsequently, the police officer – that there was a steep drop-off on the other side of that fence. But aerial imagery for that same area showed it clearly and could have saved the police officer from risking his life.

An example of Critical360 imagery.

That same logic applies to the concept of indoor mapping. By giving public safety officers, school security and administrators, and 9-1-1 dispatchers a comprehensive view of a building’s interior, no one in public safety walks into a situation blind. Officers pursuing active shooters, bomb squads searching for explosive devices, and EMS workers looking for injured victims can reduce response times and better mitigate threats with the right location intelligence.

Today, I work on an interior mapping project for EagleView® called Critical360®. While I am out in the field, I review floor plans to plot a route through the building. Each time I do, I think of that police officer because I have never received a set of floor plans that was 100% accurate.

Even the most detailed two-dimensional interior maps I have seen don’t offer enough insight into a building’s structure. Most often, they fail to capture the vastness of gymnasiums and cafeterias. They don’t accurately represent the number of stairs between the first and second floors or show whether there are landings. Boiler rooms that look the size of utility closets on floor plans turn out to be the size of two or three classrooms – and are actually located one floor down.

An effective indoor map, however, can cover these gaps. A combination of LiDAR scanning, 360-degree panoramic imagery, and three-dimensional modeling creates detailed maps of building interiors. With that come precise measurements of depth and distance across rooms and throughout the structure as a whole.

Indoor maps offer accurate representations of each room in relation to the other rooms in the building, as well as windows, access points, and security features such as alarm panels or fire extinguishers. In the event of an emergency, locating the nearest exit, calculating the distance between two rooms, or accessing the closest fire extinguisher could save lives.

Using GIS to curb rising violence

Although the Columbine massacre is among the most infamous of public shootings, statistics show that it is far from the deadliest. The massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, during the summer of 2016 represented the deadliest mass shooting in the United States, with 49 people killed and dozens more injured.

However, the nation’s second and third most deadly shootings both took place on a school campus: the Virginia Tech massacre, which killed 32, and the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which resulted in 27 deaths. Furthermore, mass shootings with four or more deaths or injuries are on the rise. According to the Gun Violence Archive’s Shooting Tracker, at least 345 mass shootings have already occurred in the U.S. in 2016 – up from 332 in 2015.

The field of public safety has embraced GIS in 9-1-1 dispatch centers, but the need for additional solutions persists. Comprehensive interior models of public buildings – schools, college campuses, government offices, and more – along with public safety training exercises in building navigation would prove instrumental in saving lives and preventing future tragedies. As GIS professionals, we have the ability to develop solutions like interior mapping to not only benefit public safety officers but keep our communities safe.

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One Response to “Navigating Emergencies, Preventing Tragedies: Indoor Mapping for Public Safety”

  1. Jen Meli Jen says:

    Very insightful! Public safety and GIS are a natural fit for one another, and imagery really can save lives. The story here about the officer chasing the suspect is especially powerful.

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