Incident Level Symbology Workgroup

The Start

In December of 2009, a plan came together to look at the interaction of map symbols for the fire service in a pre-incident to incident environment. With the help of the NAPSG Foundation, the DHS S&T First Responder Group put together a working group of public safety professionals with a larger knowledge of GIS and map making. The focus of the group was to start with the creation and/or review of incident based symbols.
In the initial planning of the workgroup, some issues became fairly apparent:

  1. Incidents are complex and dynamic and very difficult to map
  2. Information about an incident can be collected before, during, or after an incident
  3. Even though most public safety agency follows a standard (NIMS) in how the operate in an incident, the nuances of an incident are handled differently from one group to the next

With these and other issues in mind, planning for the workgroup started with the following:

  • Assembling a small group of public safety professionals from different parts of the country
  • Preparing members of the workgroup ahead of time with “homework” so that when they came to an in-person meeting they would have a frame of reference for the discussion
  • Researching past work completed

The goals of the group from the outset included:

  • Not re-inventing but complimenting efforts already done
  • Keeping in mind that whatever we did had to be flexible and scalable. This is because every incident increases and decreases in size and is handled differently based on the agency in charge and resources available
  • Considering all hazards possible for responders
  • Considering the smallest incidents that use NIMS. Examples would be a structure fire, SWAT Incident, Search and rescue of one person, etc.

The Working Group

The group was assembled with the help of the NAPSG Foundation, consisting of people with two qualifications: practical hands on experience as an emergency responder and a practical knowledge of mapping/GIS. This group consisted of representation from the FDNY, Baltimore Fire Department, Colorado Springs Fire Department, Surrey (BC) Fire Department, Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue, Seattle Fire Department, Florida State DEM, San Diego State University, Laurel (MD) Police Department, Redmond (OR) Fire Department, and the Kirkland (WA) Fire Department. All members of the group had experience responding to emergency calls and had practical experience using mapping software to produce maps for emergency incidents. The leadership of the group included Lieutenant Chris Rogers as the technical lead and Rebecca Harned as Project Manager.

Map Challenge

To get things started, the leads decided to develop a challenge for the workgroup based on a small incident that uses NIMS: a building fire. The tasks that needed to be completed were:

  • Create a map that shows the following features
    • Hazards on an incident
    • Features that can help mitigate an incident
    • Mapping of where command functions are located
  • Present the map to the group

We conducted two conference calls before an in-person meeting in March 2011, in Seattle.

In-Person Meeting

At the in-person we:

  • Presented the maps that were completed the months before
  • Discussed each map
  • Looked for common features and differences

This was accomplished on day one. The next two days were a discussion of what worked and what didn’t work. What was clear from the discussion was:

  • With a room full of public safety personnel, we looked at things differently
  • We needed symbology that fits within the framework of individual departments, but is consistent/relevant to other responders
  • Information is collected before, during, and after the incident
  • Needs to be consistent with use in the National Incident Management System. For example the guidelines need to fit with the chain of command structure, the tasks possible in each branch, and the scalability of possibility that other functions may be created that previously haven’t been considered.

After much discussion, we decided that the following is needed:

  • We need to set “guidelines” instead of “standards”
  • We need symbols that can be hand drawn
  • Symbology can’t require a lot of training to understand
  • Symbology must be usable in routine business of a public safety agency

In short, we came up with different categories of symbols, including: pre-incident, hazard, and incident command symbols. Also we defined types of emergency maps. Key attributes of the symbols are:

  • The shape of symbols is defined by the category
  • What is in the shape of the symbols is dependent on the map output and use
  • Can be hand drawn

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