In early March, a series of large tornadoes touched down in Tennessee, killing 25 people and injuring more than 300. Later in the month, tornadoes also struck in Arkansas and several other states. Natural disasters such as these, along with manmade and technological disasters (e.g., oil spills, chemical spills and radiation leaks) can strike any community across the nation, resulting in devastation for survivors, businesses, critical infrastructure and the environment. To help communities prepare for such disasters and rebuild in the aftermath, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) partnered with the National Alliance for Public Safety GIS (Geospatial Information Services) Foundation (NAPSG) to convene experts from around the country to share best practices and identify practical solutions related to information sharing, geospatial technologies, and leadership.
For the fifth year in a row, S&T has teamed with NAPSG for the National Geospatial Preparedness Summit, now known as the Innovation Summit for Preparedness and Resilience, or InSPIRE. The 2019 InSPIRE event, held in Galveston, Texas, in November, brought together public safety practitioners and GIS professionals to build skills in developing and implementing GIS-based decision support tools, develop peer relationships, and validate skills and capabilities through workshops and exercises.
“InSPIRE is the evolution of a dialogue and collaboration that started in 2012 with the National Geospatial Preparedness Summit and has grown every year since. Our shared goal is to raise awareness among the emergency response community about new situational awareness technologies, tools and capabilities, and teach public safety and community stakeholders how to more effectively use them,” said David Alexander, DHS S&T Senior Science Advisor.
Thanks to practitioner feedback S&T and NAPSG received over the years, the strategy for collaboration and Summit offerings evolved to address the role that science, research and development play in enhancing public safety operations. The collaboration was specifically rebranded as InSPIRE in 2019 to emphasize the focus on big picture ideas and achievable, successful outcomes.
There are currently three focus areas for InSPIRE programming:
- Developing better practices and policies for preparedness and resilience;
- Identifying and prioritizing needs and gaps and developing better technology solutions; and
- Informing the curriculum and training for the next generation of first responders and emergency management professionals.
“I liked the sessions that had everyone working together,” said Michael Chard, Director of Emergency Management for the city of Boulder, Colorado, and a NAPSG Board Member. “My favorite sessions were the ones where you had a lot of different folks from different disciplines—fire, EMS, emergency managers and GIS professionals—working through problems and different phases of preparedness and recovery together to find solutions.”
Justin Kates, Director of Emergency Management for the city of Nashua, New Hampshire, also a NAPSG board member, agrees. He has participated in numerous NAPSG events and has experienced firsthand InSPIRE’s goal of collaborating to improve practices and policies. “Seeing some of the best practices in GIS for emergency management and public safety, getting to network with practitioners across the country and getting to participate in some of the hands-on activities and trainings that they offer” are some of the highlights for Kates when attending InSPIRE.
As the nation’s only summit dedicated to fostering innovation in policy and technology for preparedness and resilience, InSPIRE aims to bring together policy and decision makers, practitioners and operators, and technologists. It is especially through collaboration between these groups that S&T and NAPSG are able to implement the three focus area goals.
“S&T and NAPSG both understand that there are great technological innovations taking place,” said Steven Batson, Chief of Staff at the South Carolina Emergency Management Division. “The speed at which different software and technologies are advancing is hard for the public safety community to keep up with. As communities experience increased risks to their growing populations, it becomes increasingly important to be able to marry technology with policy and emergency responders.”
InSPIRE helps create a culture of collaboration that ultimately helps the nation be better prepared for the next disasters—aligning well with national priorities for preparedness and resilience.
“There is a need for GIS standardization protocols,” said Michael Dossett, Director of Kentucky Emergency Management and Chairman of the Central U.S. Earthquake Consortium. “All states should adopt them. In the near future, we’ll all need to use GIS, or else we won’t be able to respond appropriately to disasters.”
In addition to states, universities and academia are also an integral part of the preparedness and resilience community and help InSPIRE with its third focus area of developing training.
Professor Sam Brody at Texas A&M University in Galveston, Texas, teaches graduate courses in coastal resiliency and explains the importance of GIS. “We need to understand the where, the why and the how you make things better in terms of reducing impact. And GIS is the starting point for building that capacity to analyze spatial data, visualize the outcome of that analysis and communicate it to different stakeholders.”
“When considering the best ways to provide training for GIS tools, it is important to consider the future of that tool as well,” explained Brody. “The future trends of GIS and spatial analysis are increasingly based on internet platforms, so the cloud is going to be more important in terms of collecting, storing and delivering data. In terms of visualization, it’s going to move towards augmented reality and 3D imaging. It’s one thing to see a static, two dimensional map. It’s another to actually live it, feel it and see it in three dimensions. That message is going to be much more powerful for analysts, and ultimately the decision makers.”
“As geospatial technology and workforces evolve, they’re no longer considered an afterthought. They’re embedded into the way [public safety] conducts operations every day,” explained Dr. Alexander. Both the commercial and public sectors have invested in GIS technology and solutions, resulting in “acknowledgment [of the tools], acceptance and adoption, and rapid and accelerating pace of innovation.”
InSPIRE rotates its events around the country to encourage engagement with a wide range of practitioners. Previous summits have taken place in Texas, Colorado, Alabama and Washington, DC. The next InSPIRE event is scheduled to be held in Salt Lake City, Utah, in April 6-8, 2021.