In the wake of tragedy, we all ask, “But, what can I do? How can I help?” Sometimes the answers are not immediately apparent.

It’s both alarming and reassuring to see how many press releases come across the desk here at POB describing disaster response and recovery efforts involving professional land surveyors and geospatial professionals. We applaud every effort, even if we don’t have the opportunity to share all of them. It’s clear this is a caring community. (Many of the efforts involve donated resources.)

My own answer to the two questions came in the form of training for the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). It’s a FEMA initiative, and the course ends with a live simulated disaster. I got to see first-hand what it is like to enter a building blind and try to remain safe while assisting the evacuation of simulated victims. Navigating an unfamiliar structure with smoke machines providing simulated dust and staged debris and victims everywhere was disorienting, disconcerting, and dangerous. 

I paired that experience with the regular updates we see about a new school that will serve our community and two others. I thought about all of the survey and design work going into that structure. I wondered what safety features were incorporated beyond the usual designated tornado shelter and evacuation signage. How well documented is the final build, and what is available to first responders who might have to assist in an emergency?

Talking to the fire chief in charge of our drill, I learned a lot about “friendly” and “unfriendly” doors and other challenges for first responders. He also commented about the challenge of finding time for live training for safety forces. It’s difficult to take a whole crew out on a simulation like the one we had just done because limited resources mean his and neighboring departments could be needed at any moment. Small departments mean you might be needed in a neighboring community, even for relatively small incidents.

I immediately thought, what if the department had current as-builts of significant structures in the community and first responders could do virtual walk-throughs when they are between calls? They’d be readily available for a call and they’d be adding to their training and familiarity with the sites.

This is an area where the geospatial community can contribute. A first step is building awareness of the capabilities. A presentation showing what can be done with indoor mapping and scanning would get things started. A small pro-bono demonstration project shared by members of the local professional surveyor’s society could ramp up the discussion. After that, any discussion of “smart” tools should include the roles of safety and response. It’s both a business opportunity and a community benefit.

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