Technology + Humanitarian Relief Barcamp (June 2009)

Preparedness for Earthquake Season - A Common Language of Location

Preparedness for Earthquake Season (

While often times a year or more is spent planning for special events, and even hurricanes can provide a few days advance notice, there are many other human caused or natural hazards where all response and recovery assets will need to be on “the same map sheet of music” (to borrow from former FEMA director James Lee Witt’s Feb. 2002 White Paper), day one, hour one and beyond if we are to best serve the public.

The February 2009 Lessons Learned Information Sharing ( Newsletter had an interesting section in it called: Mass Gatherings - Keeping Plans Updated.

One of the four links provided in the Newsletter as an example of mass gathering plans and guidelines was FEMA’s March 2005 Job Aids Manual for Special Events Contingency Planning.

Like any (mutual aid) emergency/disaster plan, guideline, or framework, one can perform a “reality threshold check,” by searching the document on just two keywords, “map” and “grid,” to get an estimation of how things will likely work out on the ground during an operation.

This particular job aids manual passed the “reality threshold check” with mostly flying colors.

As basic as it sounds, it was good to see that the Special Events Contingency Planning document included this critical need: “A universal map/grid referencing system for the entire event footprint should be developed in advance for all attendees and event staff (including public safety personnel) to allow for the rapid identification of event-specific facilities and other locations in an emergency.”

Why? A common, simple to use, plain “language of location.” Interoperability of commo, plans and systems. A map centric/driven unity of effort, coordination, and cooperation between thousands of participants from a variety of agencies and organizations.

The manual did not, however, identify the correct standard recommended for use as the “universal map/grid referencing system,” the United States National Grid (USNG-NAD83). USNG is the civil counterpart for the Military Grid Reference System (MGRS-WGS84).

Moreover, we all know that special events due to their size and critical vulnerabilities are at special risks for nuclear, chemical and/or biological attack. “To minimize operational friction during military support to civil authorities, USMC Chemical Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF) based at Indian Head, MD requires the ability to use and exchange standardized map coordinates. The lack of a similar, standardized procedure by state, local, and many Federal Agencies is a critical deficiency in U.S. consequence management. Standardized map coordinates must be equivalent to Military Grid Reference System (MGRS) when referenced to North American Datum 1983 (NAD 83) or World Geodetic System 1984 (WGS 84), U.S. National Grid.” (06/02/2005, RRL_240_Grid Coords Policy Req.pdf)

(Caption: Map with USNG overlay produced by Miami-Dade County Department of Emergency Management & Homeland Security for Super Bowl XLI, February 4, 2007, at Dolphin Stadium.)

The FEMA special events job aids manual did include these critically important references to maps and mapping:

- Medical teams must be able to locate individuals in need of attention easily. You should agree on the use of a common reference map or grid system.
- Have medical teams been provided with maps of the venue?
- (Medical aid posts require that they should) Be clearly marked on maps of the venue layout. (and) Be in a position known by security and other event personnel.
- Providing fire officials with an event footprint grid map with a description of the possible hazards reduces the response time and allows the responding agency to be prepared.
- The best way to avoid problems in these areas is to map the event grounds and identify the areas that could be used as hiding places.
- To enable security personnel to perform their duties effectively, you must brief them appropriately prior to the event. This briefing should provide security personnel with: Details of the venue footprint and grid map, including entrances, exits, medical aid posts, and any potential hazards.
- If an incident occurs that is beyond the capability of the local authorities, a community may have to request the assistance of State or Federal assets through designated State and local agencies. Event planners should be prepared to discuss the event and the locations of all of the risks with the State and Federal authorities, as needed. Providing an event footprint and grid map to State or Federal responders will help them locate areas in the event, especially if smoke or debris makes locating areas difficult. Research your support and your capabilities at every level.

(After reading all that, and when it comes to maps, should we not expect the same level of capability for effective response to (special) disaster events?)

While the job aids manual does not specifically address geospatial technologies, it only makes sense that technologies which support such operations like GPS, GIS, and Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD), also all be set to the same thing, the U.S. National Grid.

As departments, agencies, and others purchase geospatial technology systems, whether vehicle mounted, human portable (safety officers, etc.), in dispatch, the back office, or as new firefighter locator systems being developed also begin to be fielded by a variety of vendors…, be sure all are set at the user interface to USNG.

While DHS, FEMA, and USFA, like all member agencies of the National Search and Rescue Committee (NSARC), endorse the USNG standard, NIMS still lacks specific standards-based operating guidelines and facilitating structures required for human participants in any such "national," "system," to easily and precisely exchange (interoperable) map coordinates, even when the participants are using digital systems.
This remains a critical deficiency.

(Note: Given all NATO military disaster relief forces, Japan, S. Korea..., all use MGRS, it's a natural that in times of true crisis they too would appreciate the .civ sector to be on the same map sheet of music in messaging, technology, plans, ops....) Let's hope Google, Microsoft & Yahoo beta crisis teams use standards-based 4 human interface, common language of location:

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Comment by Mark A. Whitney on June 13, 2009 at 2:32pm
Here is the excellent NPR story (WESAT) where the quote "language of location" came from:
Comment by Mark A. Whitney on June 13, 2009 at 1:32pm

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