Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 1, 2006

The emergency management map gap

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Technology for HLS — by Christian Beckner on May 1, 2006

The National Journal has an interesting story on FEMA’s failure to fully implement a mapping standard that it had endorsed several years ago as a tool for coordinating search & rescue activities in an emergency response. From the story:

Four years before Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, the Federal Emergency Management Agency endorsed a plan for the “National Grid,” a unified mapping system to help emergency responders navigate a city where the street signs and other landmarks are submerged, blown down, or washed away. At the time, FEMA said that the grid would “help save lives, reduce the costs of disaster, and enhance preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation efforts.” In December 2001, a federal interdepartmental committee that studies mapping adopted the National Grid as the standard for federal agencies.

But when Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast, FEMA didn’t use the grid. Rescuers were left scrambling for usable maps to get them where they needed to be….

Mapping problems bedeviled the Mississippi Delta K-9 Search-and-Rescue Unit, sent from Jackson to locate victims in Hancock County, 40 miles east of New Orleans. The unit’s dogs could sniff out people in trouble, but only if the handlers could find the targeted location. One day, said Assistant Chief Shane Henderson, “we completely could not find the area” that needed to be searched — because the mapping software didn’t work. Finally, other rescuers used cellphones to direct Henderson’s unit to the right spot.

According to Brooks and other proponents, the National Grid would have prevented these problems if authorities had taken steps to train federal, state, and local responders during the four years between the grid’s adoption and Katrina’s devastation. The National Grid is a mapping system based on coordinates provided by satellite imagery. It can be displayed like any other digital map (think Google maps) on a Global Positioning System device. Each point in the country has a unique 15-digit grid address. Instead of entering a physical address (street and ZIP code), users input a single string of letters and numbers into a handheld GPS unit that can give directions within one meter of a location. All GPS units are programmed with the National Grid (or the compatible military grid). Users just have to switch their unit to the proper format to find a grid address.

Addressing this gap is a high-value, low-cost agenda item, and is something that DHS and FEMA should prioritize this year. You can find more information about the US National Grid here and here.

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1 Comment »


Comment by William R. Cumming

May 2, 2006 @ 4:54 pm

No doubt NASAR (the Search & Rescue Trade Association) refused to adopt the grid and of course FEMA had no legal authority to mandate its use. The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act is all about money not standards that might save lives. Another item for the Senate’s suggestion that the statute should be reviewed.

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