You’ve heard the joke about the things you should never believe: “The check is in the mail.” “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”

For nearly two decades, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has operated a program that truly helps the geospatial community by providing a suite of private, professional service contracting firms and the Corps’ expertise in contract administration to other federal agencies, as well as state and local government.

The Technical Center of Expertise (TCX) for Photogrammetric Mapping, located in the Corps’ St. Louis District office, began performing “support for others” in mapping-related services through nationwide contracts for photogrammetric services in the late 1980s. The center’s initial efforts were to support the Environmental Protection Agency’s remote sensing laboratory, then located in Las Vegas, and to provide geospatial contract applications to monitor and clean up hazardous waste sites within the United States. Since that time, the center has helped more than 50 government entities with millions of dollars in geospatial requirements. TCX was designated and established as a formal center in 1995.

“With the rapid pace of computer technology and GIS in … aerial mapping, engineers, planners, environmental scientists, economists and others began to demand more geospatial mapping data to accomplish their missions,” says Dennis Morgan, chief of the TCX for more than a decade until his retirement last year. “The complexity and cost began to increase. The Corps could not afford to keep up with the changes in equipment, staffing and training requirements to accomplish this mission on [its] own. Corps offices began to move exclusively to contractors for this work. However, this required a certain level of technical expertise that many Corps offices felt they could not keep.” He continues, “A TCX was needed to provide the technical expertise to Corps offices that did not have such. It was also decided that many Corps mapping missions would require a rapid response and deliverable turnaround that could usually only be provided with the use of contracts already in place that could achieve this work.”

This image and those that follow were produced by Aero-Metric of Reston, Va., for the Corps’ Technical Center of Expertise. This color orthophoto was derived from a Zeiss Digital Mapping Camera. All images courtesy of Aero-Metric.

The TCX has completed work for virtually every Corps of Engineers division, district and laboratory, as well as for the U.S. Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy and Coast Guard. These sites usually include multiple installations and bases within the continental United States (CONUS). “We have provided technical and contractual assistance to FEMA, USGS, NOAA, EPA, NGA, BLM, BOR and the National Capital Planning Commission,” Morgan says. “We have provided assistance to several state and local governments when federal funding participation was involved. These include the states of Louisiana, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, Wisconsin, Alaska, Tennessee and Minnesota.”

If another Corps district, other federal agency, or a state or local agency wants to utilize the center’s services and contractors, the TCX works on a project reimbursable basis. Other government offices can contact the TCX to discuss the project’s technical requirements, schedules and funding issues. Other federal, state and local governments need to provide assurances that the project has a federal funding component and then enter into a formal Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the agency and the Corps. The MOA defines legal and contractual responsibilities as well as the scope of the services that the Corps will provide. All projects must have the funding in place with the Corps prior to issuance of contract.

While the TCX often handles routine and common geospatial requirements, emergency response has been one of its particular specialties. The Corps’ Cold Regions Research Laboratory (CRRL) in Hanover, N.H., the designated Corps lead in emergency response, established procedures several years ago to allow the federal government to collect quality reconnaissance imagery over natural disaster areas in a very quick time frame. For example, as hurricane paths become apparent, Corps labs and the TCX work along with FEMA to collect imagery within 24 hours after the storms pass through. The goal is to use contractors with current digital camera technology experience to collect and process imagery and deliver it to the Corps’ Topographic Engineering Center (TEC) within 24 hours of collection. At the TEC, the data is attributed and put into a format requested by FEMA. This was accomplished for FEMA during the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes that passed through the Southeast and Gulf Coast areas including New Orleans.

Planimetric features depicted in a CAD environment.

TCX contractors collected imagery and produced new elevation models of the floodplain areas along the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri Rivers after the 1993 floods for the USGS and again in 2006 for FEMA during Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts.

Currently, the photogrammetric mapping TCX staff includes three technical experts, two contracting officer representatives, and a project manager and assistant. The new geospatial engineering branch chief and TCX head at the Corps’ St. Louis office is Keith Short, PP, who assumed the position in 2007.

Other federal agencies have emulated the TCX model. The USGS now manages a suite of Geospatial Products and Services Contracts (GPSC) in its Rolla, Mo., office that are also available to other federal, state and local government agencies. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coastal Services Center (CSC) in Charleston, S.C., manages several Coastal Geospatial Services Contracts for the purchase of geospatial data and services to support coastal resource management issues, and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) makes its global geospatial intelligence contracts available to other defense and intelligence agencies.

A surface elevation derived from LiDAR data sets; the areas shaded blue represent land area subject to inundation.

The concept of pre-positioned contracts to support emergency response has been endorsed by a 2006 National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences report, “Successful Response Starts With A Map: Improving Geospatial Support for Disaster Management.”1

The report recommends that standing contracts and other procurement mechanisms should be put in place at local, regional and national levels by the responsible agencies to permit state and local emergency managers to acquire overhead imagery and other types of event-related geospatial data rapidly during disasters. USGS now has a standing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with FEMA to provide such support contracts.

The Corps, USGS, NOAA and NGA contract programs have the following characteristics in common:
  • a broad scope of geospatial services
  • contracts awarded to multiple firms using the Brooks Act qualifications-based selection (QBS) process
  • an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (ID/IQ) method whereby task orders are awarded to firms on an as-needed basis, to serve each agency’s own requirements as well as those requested by other government entities
  • several prime contractors, supported by dozens of subcontractors

Numerous studies have shown the acquisition workforce of government agencies as declining. With the demand for geospatial professional services and data deliverables simultaneously on the rise, these contract programs help match the government’s demand with the private sector’s supply. It is an innovative approach to government where “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you” is no laughing matter.