Incident Symbology Background

Every day, first responders use maps to navigate to emergency calls. Some responders may use their own personal knowledge (a “mental map”). Some use a paper map (hand or computer drawn). Yet a growing number are using high quality computer based maps utilizing software based on the latest Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Not only do responders use the latter form of information to navigate to calls, but they use information on the “map” to identify features relating to incidents and hazards that may cause the responders harm.
These maps can be in the form of

  • Street maps
  • Emergency preplans
  • Area map books
  • Mapping software
  • Any other maps based on the need and output ability

Incidents vary in scale, time and circumstance. While most responses are smaller in size, large-scale responses happen daily within fire and police departments. To manage incidents where more than one unit is assigned, a structure called the National Incident Management System (NIMS) is used. NIMS is derived from the Incident Command System that started as a bottom up effort to better manage an incident. Without going into the history too much, this system got its start over 50 years as a way to manage large scale wild-land fires. Some of the key things to remember:

  • The system is scalable from smaller to larger incidents
  • It is flexible and adaptable in need
  • It can be used for any type of emergency incident

During an incident, maps are often used to visualize current information. As noted above, these maps can range from paper maps where a command aide marks up with pencil to a more professional map maintained by a GIS Specialist.
Regardless of what kind of map is used, there are several things that are consistent:

  • There is information that existed before the incident
  • Features exist to identify access information, features exist to help mitigating incidents, and features exist that show hazards that need to be handled or avoided – and so on.
  • Data is collected actively and dynamically

A primary challenge to with any map is creating a consistent look so that information can be conveyed across different agencies, disciplines and jurisdictions. Such consistently presented information is commonly called a Common Operating Picture.