Don't wait for next natural disaster, GIS expert warns

Australia’s emergency response organisations cannot afford to wait until the next disaster strikes before updating their digital mapping capabilities, according to a leading international emergency response expert.

Speaking from the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) conference in Perth today, former fire fighter turned global Geographic Information System (GIS) specialist Tom Patterson said the eye of the storm was not the time to begin developing mapping systems for crisis management and recovery.

“I’ve been called to Australia to assist with GIS deployment during many of the nation’s largest crises – including the 2009 fires in Victoria and the 2011 floods in Queensland,” Mr Patterson said.

“I’ve seen first-hand how effective – and necessary – GIS technology is at times like these – yet for many emergency services organisations, upgrading their systems isn’t a priority until disaster strikes.

“The middle of a fire or flood is far from the optimal time to develop these capabilities – emergency responders cannot afford to wait until their hand is forced.

“The time between disasters is when emergency services must develop infrastructure, load historical and current data into their systems, and train their personnel to use the technology.

“My imperative to Australia’s emergency services organisations is – do not wait until it’s too late – improve your technology systems now.”

As Wildland Fire Specialist with global geospatial giant Esri, Mr Patterson assisted the Queensland Fire and Rescue Service with their use of GIS during the 2011 floods.

He has also advised on GIS strategy during many of the world’s worst disasters, including the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Mexico, and the 2011 tornados that destroyed parts of Alabama and Missouri in the U.S.

This time he is in Australia to advise local emergency services organisations of how new advances in the technology could prove pivotal to their next response efforts.

Mr Patterson said that while many of Australia’s emergency services organisations already have a GIS capability of some sort – they must incorporate it into every facet of their response procedures to achieve the best results.

“The technology provides a central point of truth for all spatial data including operational, historical and supply and maintenance data,” Mr Patterson said.

“When data is viewed in the easy-to-understand visual context of maps, personnel can see where an event is in relation to the location and proximity of people, assets and environmental variables.

“Decision-makers then have the ability to predict how a crisis may unfold – enabling them to effectively deploy resources and personnel, and issue evacuation notifications quickly – which is crucial at a time when every second counts.”

Mr Patterson said one key advancement was the development of mobile GIS technology.

“Mobile technology enables field crews to easily capture data on the ground and have it instantly sent back to authorities at headquarters to help construct a complete common operating picture,” Mr Patterson said.

“This provides headquarters with a more accurate, dynamic understanding of conditions on the ground – while also providing teams working in the field with the most up-to-date picture of an emergency situation, as it unfolds around them.”

The AFAC conference is Australasia’s premier emergency management conference and attracted delegates from the fire and emergency management industry to explore, examine and debate key issues facing the sector.

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