Help where you need it
MapInfo, FirstCall craft a system that helps emergency managers target their response
- By Doug Beizer
- Jan 10, 2008
TV and radio news reports are great for warning citizens about
widespread, impending events such as hurricanes or snowstorms.
But when an emergency strikes a smaller, more specific area,
broad announcements aren't effective. Many people who
don't need to worry about the situation receive the notice,
and ? more important ? the people who need the
information may miss it. Because of a small chemical spill, for
example, residents of a dozen homes might need to be told to stay
indoors, while people in a small number of other homes might be
ordered to evacuate. In that situation, emergency personnel want
the ability to send certain messages to specific homes.
That's when emergency phone call notification systems
would become an important tool for government agencies.
For Spartanburg County, S.C., the ability to customize who needs
to be contacted during any given situation was attractive to county
The county selected a system that uses mapping software from
Troy, N.Y.-based MapInfo Corp. and services from Baton Rouge,
La.-based FirstCall Network Inc.
"It enables us to contact people at a quick rate,"
said Robbie Swofford, the county's senior research analyst
and Computer Emergency Response Team coordinator. During a
hazardous-materials spill, for example, people may be asked to
either stay in place or evacuate.
"Wherever the spill took place, we can actually go on a
geo-coded map and select that area," Swofford said. "We
can select a five-, 10- or whatever-mile radius we need around that
area and basically send a message that tells them to either
evacuate or shelter in place."
The ability to send specific information to specific households
has many uses. In a missing-person situation, officials can send a
notice to people in a radius from where the person was last seen.
The message can include a description of the person and a phone
number to call with information.
"It is also a good crime prevention and investigation
tool," Swofford said. "We've used it in a few
cases when burglaries take place, notifying those around the
particular place where crime has occurred. We let them know what is
happening in the area and provide a description of the
Unlike relying on TV news, the system gets the information to
the people most in need of help.
Spartanburg officials paid for the phone-number database, which
includes public and nonpublished numbers. Residents can register
with the county to have missing numbers, such as mobile phones and
voice-over-IP numbers, added to the system.
To use the system, county officials log on to the Web-based
application. The entire county is mapped, and the system makes it
possible to circle a radius of homes to be contacted.
Because the application is deployed remotely, the only
infrastructure agencies need is an Internet connection, said
Matthew Teague, FirstCall's vice president of technical
The system can also send Short Message Service text messages and
e-mails. FirstCall can integrate with existing geographic
information systems, Teague said.
"The end user sees an interface where they can record the
message to be sent," Teague said. "They also have the
GIS interface where they can select down to streets or individual
In a hostage situation, for example, officials can notify people
in specific homes on a street while omitting the house where the
hostage situation is happening.
MapInfo provided the location technology for the system, said
Greg Donahue, MapInfo's senior marketing manager.
Companies such as FirstCall use MapInfo's platform to
build solutions that need location technology. "We provide
them basically with geospatial technology at the back end that they
use as part of their total solution," Donahue said.
MapInfo's location platform is Web-services based. Many
government customers use it for traditional applications that
benefit from adding visualization. A customer relationship
management system may use visualization to identify a geographic
location that is experiencing similar problems.
The availability of Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth has
created interest in visualization among government customers,
"Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth are extremely
good visualization tools, but you can't really do the
analysis in them," he said. "So what we've done
is make it possible to push your analysis out to your audience, and
you can publish it as a file that opens directly in Google
In Spartanburg County, during an ice storm in 2005, town
officials of Pacolet alerted residents that a shelter was open and
available. Residents could also respond to the notice if they
"We wanted to make sure the system was interactive,"
Swofford said. "If we have to evacuate a three-mile radius
around a particular facility due to an explosion, we would like
residents to have the opportunity at the end of the message to say
'Press 1 if you can evacuate or Press 2 if you need
If a person requests help, county officials can pull up the
address and send help. Agencies also use the emergency notification
systems to alert first responders about events. In this way, the
system contacts Spartanburg emergency response teams, including
hazardous materials, bomb squad, fire investigation, and search and
Doug Beizer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a staff writer at