GAO: Geospatial sharing insufficient

Although agencies are developing and deploying geospatial information systems to help battle wildlife fires, more interagency communications are needed to get their full value, according to a General Accounting Office report released this week.

The study, Geospatial Information: Technologies Hold Promise for Wildland Fire Management, But Challenges Remain, was requested by Reps. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Joel Hefley, R-Colo., to find better ways to use geospatial systems in combating forest fires.

Greater senior-level support as well as the detailed plans on how to bring about interagency collaboration are needed to fully use these systems across agencies, the report concluded. It also said that once in place, such systems could be used by the Homeland Security Department and other agencies.

According to the report, about 7 million acres were burned in forest fires in 2002, costing the federal government $1.6 billion to suppress.

Geospatial information technologies, such as sensors and systems that analyze geographical information, can offer valuable information to firefighters in battle. For instance, first responders use a combination of satellite and aerial imagery, maps of vegetation, Global Positioning System data and specialized fire behavior modeling software to anticipate where a fire may spread.

An interagency working group called the National Wildfire Coordinating Group has several initiatives under way to facilitate more interagency communications. Also, the Office of Management and Budget's Geospatial One-Stop initiative was designed to make geospatial data standards easily available online.

However, there are roadblocks to more uses of existing systems, including difficulties in transferring data between systems, inadequate staffing and the difficulty in providing online access to first responders on the scene.

"Until effective interagency management of information resources and technology is a priority, the wildland fire community will likely continue to face challenges in effectively using geospatial information technologies," the reports said.

For the report, GAO focused on the work of five offices: the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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