Homeland Security: High-tech Tool Improves Incident Planning and Response for Emergency Management Officials
In its most significant deployment to date, the Geographic Tool for Visualization and Collaboration (GTVC) developed by the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) proved its usefulness during the G-8 Summit of world leaders at Sea Island, Ga., in June 2004. The Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), which is funding GTVC development and deployment, made the tool available to state and federal law enforcement agencies during the event to coordinate their combined resources and responses in real time.
While extensive state planning and tight security prevented any significant law enforcement problems during the G-8, GTVC's developers and users were pleased with the enhanced system, which was originally developed for military use, said Kirk Pennywitt, a GTRI senior research engineer. After nine months of work by Pennywitt's 10-member research team, GTVC provided many new features for its G-8 use -- including maps with six-inch resolution for G-8 areas of interest. Researchers also boosted GTVC's reliability and robustness, and added secure encryption for communications.
"GTVC proved to be an extremely useful tool," said Ralph Reichert, director of GEMA's Terrorism Emergency Preparedness and Response Division. "Using GTVC, law enforcement teams were able to monitor and track activities in a manner that kept them one step ahead of protestors. Consequence-management staff also used the system to make sure key resources were available at the right place at the right time. Furthermore, and probably most importantly, command staff could immediately get a snapshot of what was going on without relying solely on traditional voice communications."
Besides GEMA, other agencies using GTVC during the G-8 were the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Georgia State Patrol, Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Guard and the U.S. Secret Service. Users were able to share information simultaneously, keeping officials informed and coordinated, Pennywitt noted.
GTRI researchers provided technical support during the event, training users and configuring laptop computers for field agents. Researchers also demonstrated the system's features, including high-resolution imagery available at 1-meter resolution for the entire state, and even higher resolution for certain areas. The maps scale with each view and maintain all the markings made on them electronically.
"The G-8 Summit was a good test, and it confirmed the system's geographic-planning and information-sharing capabilities," Pennywitt said.
He and his colleagues also derived numerous lessons learned from the G-8 experience, he added. They are prioritizing work on 130 potential new features and requirements for the next version of GTVC software. For example: They want to make network connectivity easier; create better information reporting capabilities that include both icons and text or other details; display real-time GPS-based tracking of vehicles and personnel; and add more powerful geographic search capabilities, such as showing all the hospitals within a 50-mile radius.
Also in development are other enhancements and applications of GTVC. For one, the system may lend its mapping capabilities to the Joint Regional Information Exchange System (JRIES) if it joins this partnership of law enforcement agencies. Through JRIES, officials can request information on suspects and/or events.
GTRI is also working with the Georgia Forestry Commission to adapt GTVC to track smoke during planned burns of forested land. Other potential applications for GTVC include tracking of chemical plumes and planning evacuation routes, as well as tracking of human and animal diseases, Pennywitt said. GEMA also uses GTVC for hurricane and flooding evacuation planning and for public event activity planning.
Pennywitt and his colleagues expect to deploy a new version of the GTVC software within the next year to support a statewide infrastructure for wider use.
"This system is very useful," Pennywitt said. "You get out of it what you put into it. The more experienced users get a lot from it. We believe the new version of the GTVC software will provide an easier interface for users who only want to observe situations, rather than enter information into the system. We know GTVC works, and we hope it will be more widely distributed in the future."