Exploring how changing the way we map our spaces can help make a positive impact and save lives

In the event of a major disaster, disaster response personnel must rely on two-dimensional maps and Google Map data to determine their plan of action. But what happens when those maps are out of date or not matched?

An innovative project brought engineers and students from the Geomatics Engineering Program together with scientists and students in the Graduate Program in Disaster & Emergency Management, to work on a new 3-D map system that incorporates a wealth of data from different resources into one seamless 3-D geospatial interface that will improve decision making in the event of an emergency.

The project team used the York Keele campus as its “living laboratory”. Using aerial images and lidar data, blueprints, survey data and site visits, the group worked on constructing a detailed 3-D map of every road and building (both inside and outside) on the 650-acre campus.

“The purpose of this project is to integrate maps with decision making approaches from the disaster and emergency management group,” said Costas Armenakis, professor of Geomatics Engineering. In essence, the geomatics group is providing expertise into how to handle geospatial information and technology within the context of decision making in disaster and emergency management.

The technology, which makes use of geographic information systems (GIS), remote sensing and location data from global positioning system (GPS), is creating not only a map, but simulations of disaster scenarios that can play a preventative role in emergency management by identifying potential hazards.

“From the emergency management perspective, we look at identifying potential risks and hazards on campus. We look at what are the risks and where are they located, and if there are any associated hazards, such as chemical storage, which is important information that is required for future planning and risk reduction,” said Niru Nirupama, professor of Disaster & Emergency Management. “The City of Toronto uses GIS for their emergency management process and this project gives our students important experiential education in that regard.”

The test area is focused on the Keele campus because says the Geomatics Engineering Program has developed a comprehensive collection of images of the campus, roads, locations for parking and building information.

“This technology provides a special view of the infrastructure so that in the case of an emergency at a building or a number of buildings we know where to direct people so that they can safely evacuate the building,” said Armenakis. “In order to do to know what the preferable evacuation route to this point is, the information provides the distance, where a safe point is and how long it will take people to get to the meeting place.”

In the case of a gas leak in the Chemistry Building, the GIS data could indicate that a chemical storage room could be a hazard to evacuating occupants through their usual point of exit. Armed with the information about what is contained in the building and its configuration, disaster and emergency management personnel could then direct those being evacuated to an alternate exit to avoid the potential hazard. They would be able to convey exact directions, location of the exit and how long it would take to get to safety to those being evacuated.

The system will also provide planners with a dynamic series of simulations and scenarios, which address what Armenakis and Nirupama call the “If” scenario. The information from the simulations when coupled with potential risk information could be conveyed to Emergency Management Personnel so that they can get prepared.

“Essentially we are developing a special GIS decision making system for emergency response,” said Armenakis. “The advantage to our students is that they see the actual geospatial information in a simulated experience.”

The system differs from Google Maps in that it provides dynamic simulations of scenarios. “If something happened on campus, say at a chemistry lab, our project is developing building evacuation scenarios. Google gives infrastructure, including some specific spatial route finding, but at the present time, Google does not provide any simulations,” said Armenakis.

“In the case of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, many people did not know that certain stairways were available, or they did not know where to go and emergency personnel had limited information,” says Nirup2008 explosion at the Sunrise Propane facility in North Yorkama. Cellphone conversations from the tragedy reveal the lack of information that EMS personnel were able to give to those tapped in the towers.

The simulations made possible by this interdisciplinary project provided students with important technical knowledge and disaster simulations, which when coupled with their expertise in emergency management, have the potential to save lives and make a positive impact on the world.

Author Sean Billingsley

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