“GIS is able to integrate data sources from a variety of data layers…and from a planning perspective you could use it to determine how we protect our resources,” he explains. Fire departments can use the software to determine where critical infrastructure is, where roads are, and where buildings are, so all information is accurate and updated in a timely manner. Fire departments can plug in information about wildfires as they occur and can also capture information from satellites to show where the fire is moving in real time.
One way GIS can help in a disaster scenario is by plugging it into a 911 system. If a disaster occurs, such as a wildfire, the user can identify where the fire began and establish a perimeter around that area, such as one mile, beyond which everyone must evacuate. “You could then identify all the property owners that have a parcel that touches that one-mile buffer, which could create a phone list from your 911 system to actually send an automated phone call to everybody that’s on that list” instructing them to evacuate, McElroy explains. Also, if the fire quickly spreads, that buffer zone can be automatically expanded and set off another round of evacuation calls to those on the pre-programmed list.
The Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service currently uses GIS to identify active wildfires in the nation, vegetation conditions after a wildfire, and areas for aerial fire-retardant avoidance. Esri is a company that specializes in employing GIS for various purposes, including fire prevention. Russ Johnson, Esri’s director of public safety solutions and a former fire chief, says that GIS can be used to help fire departments determine risk areas and how to handle those risks.
For instance, to contain a fire and keep it from spreading, fire departments usually need to be able to begin suppressing it before four minutes have passed. By plugging fire station data into GIS software, fire departments can determine how far they can travel in four minutes based on the time of day and traffic patterns.
If there’s an area that the fire department can’t get to in four minutes, the software will identify it, allowing users to decide whether they need to add a new fire station there, whether to require property owners to take additional fire prevention measures—such as installing a sprinkler system—or whether to increase fire prevention education in that area, Johnson explains.
When it comes to preventing wildfires, GIS can be used to map how a wildfire might spread given the weather conditions, the available fuel for the fire—such as brush and trees—and the terrain. For example, GIS could show that an incline of more than 20 percent that is covered with half-dead medium brush would create a “very intense fire.” Before GIS, fire departments would have had to make these determinations using static maps, but now, they can assess vulnerabilities almost immediately.
Once an incident has occurred, GIS can model how the fire will spread. “It will show me, based upon wind conditions, vegetation conditions, fuel moisture conditions, where that fire’s going to be and what period of time it’s going to be there,” Johnson explains.