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College of Arts & Sciences
Hazards & Vulnerability Research Institute


Use of Spatial Data and Geographic Technologies in Response to the September 11 Terrorist Attack

Preliminary Report

Deborah S.K. Thomas (University of Colorado, Denver
Susan L. Cutter, Michael Hodgson, Mike Gutekunst, 
Steven Jones (University of South Carolina)

Click here for a printable version.

Geographic technologies, including remote sensing and geographic information systems, can clearly contribute to all phases of the emergency management cycle. The hazards community has a fairly good appreciation of their use for preparedness and mitigation, but much more limited knowledge on real-time potential. The goal of this research is to better understand the use of these technologies in the rescue, relief, and recovery stages.

While certainly tragic, the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center set in motion emergency response efforts that provide a considerable opportunity to evaluate the use of geographic technologies in response to a devastating event. By documenting and evaluating the effectiveness of geographic technologies during these frenzied circumstances, we can begin to identify successes and shortcomings that can inform other communities. The assessment includes all facets of geographic technologies, including data, personnel, software integration, hardware infrastructure, and organizational arrangements. The fieldwork conducted on October 8-10 permitted the research group to get an impression of mapping activities and to identify key people involved in the efforts. The following presents some initial observations and preliminary findings.

As with all response efforts during an event of this magnitude, it was difficult to completely mobilize and coordinate in the initial few days, especially because the original EOC had been destroyed. In this case, mapping efforts initially depended on local efforts in a make-shift environment. Support staff was not immediately available since air travel was shut-down and additional experts from anywhere outside of NYC were unable to gain access to mapping efforts swiftly. Resources of all types were stretched, and this was no less true of mapping. Computers, people, software and data were hastily mobilized and the use of geographic technologies expanded in the days following September 11.

There appear to have been three primary mapping endeavors directly involved with response efforts. The Urban Search and Rescue teams supported by the National Incidence Management Team, including FEMA personnel, incorporated mapping capabilities. This group focused primarily on the World Trade Center site itself, mapping at a very micro scale. The Phoenix Group out of the NYC Fire Department also used GIS, although at this time the extent is unclear. What is evident is that these mapping efforts were not particularly integrated or coordinated with the mapping center at the Emergency Operations Center.

The major mapping activities at the EOC on Pier 92 were coordinated by the Director of Citywide GIS out of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. The maps produced here were generally at a more macro, citywide scale. Many people and groups supported this effort, including other GIS specialists from agencies throughout NYC local government, vendors (notably ESRI), volunteer mappers, and local universities.

GIS in NYC was not centralized to this single agency prior to September 11. Instead, it was truly a coordinated effort with over 15 separate agencies/departments with GIS specialists and mapping capabilities. These individuals had established relationships, agreements, and projects in place prior to working together at the EOC. These relationships, both formal and informal, contributed to the successes of the mapping center. Given the intensity of the event, it is amazing what the mapping groups were able to accomplish in such a short time, evidenced by the different types of maps produced and the numbers.

The experiences in NYC do point to lessons for other jurisdictions. Most evident is the need for coordinated mapping efforts prior to any event such as this, or any large hazard event. In the face of a disaster with the magnitude of the World Trade Center attack, having a coordinated GIS enterprise in place pre-event is clearly the ideal situation. This means some type of organizational and personnel plan, as well as integrated datasets.

The importance of having a spatial data infrastructure in place prior to any event is also vital to successful mapping during rescue, relief, and recovery phases. Many within the GIS community recognize the importance of this for a variety of applications apart from emergency management. The reality of forming integrated, accessible datasets can be quite difficult for political or economic reasons, but these events only highlight the potential value. The necessity of having this in place becomes particularly apparent when real-time or near real-time applications are needed. Data that integrate into a single platform and have the appropriate spatial and temporal resolution set the foundation for utilizing geographic technologies to the fullest during response efforts.

The fact is that GIS is a data-driven technology. Consequently having swift access to high quality data is vital to emergency management operations under these circumstances. Initial observations indicate that this was not completely in place prior to September 11. Even though many agencies utilized GIS extensively, there was not a truly integrated, enterprise GIS system in place. Data sharing agreements must also be in place prior to any event. During emergency response efforts to events of this magnitude, privately held data, such as utilities, as well as classified data will likely be needed. A mechanism for obtaining this type of data should already be negotiated. This may translate to having data stored in a secure environment, or obtaining it from a secure sight. One point is clear after the destruction of the EOC in World Trade Center Building 7; these data should be stored in multiple locations. Even though a complete spatial data structure was not in place in NYC, many agencies within the city government already had established formal and informal relationships, which became the basis for building an enterprise GIS in the post-event period.

Interestingly, the original EOC in NYC evidently had one computer terminal devoted to mapping. The make-shift EOC on Pier 92 had an entire area with over 20 computers, a server, and a whole staff dedicated to creating maps. By demonstrating how maps can aid in the rescue, relief, and recovery efforts in this event, the role of mapping in any future NYC EOC, and potentially other locations, will certainly be reassessed.