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Geography students tackle innovative emergency management project

Date of Release: 05/11/2006

SAN MARCOS—Geographic information technology is rapidly becoming a part of everyday life, and a graduate geography class conducted by Sven Fuhrmann this spring at Texas State University-San Marcos investigated when and how advanced geographic information technology could be used during natural and man-made emergency situations.

Google Earth and Map Quest--interactive Internet-based maps that provide on-demand geographic information--are two such applications that have grown in popularity in recent years. Emergency responders and managers have begun to review the potentials of this technology for their tasks, explained Fuhrmann, an assistant professor of geography. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can support emergency management by providing information for locating and approaching the cause of an incident, supporting the acquisition and supply of resources, and displaying weather forecasts and other information.

This year’s advanced GIS course (GEO 5419) provided a unique learning experience for the students. Literature reviews and lectures allowed the introduction and discussion of the latest GIS technology in emergency management, while the lab section of the seminar included a collaborative project with the City of San Marcos Fire Department. The project included reviewing past emergency incidents, assessing the needs of the San Marcos Fire Department, and developing cutting edge applications for future crisis management in San Marcos.

“The students and Dr. Fuhrmann went the extra mile working with us on this project,” said San Marcos Fire Chief Mike Baker. “San Marcos Fire Rescue and all of the citizens of San Marcos will benefit from this collaborative effort. I enjoyed working them and look forward to future projects with the University.”

In February 2005 San Marcos was struck by a hazardous train derailment that resulted in the evacuation of hundreds of local citizens. A knowledge elicitation exercise in class allowed sharing the timeline of the accident and how Chief Baker and the crews managed the emergency response. The information gathered laid the foundation for the geo-information tool development in the lab section of the class.

“It has been a real learning experience for the students and me,” said James Graham, a teaching assistant for the class. “We applied the theoretical background of this class to develop applied skills that enable us to understand both GIS techniques and the GIS requirements of the end user.”

The students developed two prototypical applications for the fire department. On May 1, the graduate class presented the work to Chief Baker and his staff at fire station No. 3 on Hunter Road. Students presented an Arc Explorer application in which they included datasets that might have been helpful during train derailment emergency response as well as novel two- and three-dimensional datasets that were linked to Google Earth and allowed city-based data query, route finding and 3D building visualizations.

Fuhrman’s teaching and learning approach allowed combining theoretical aspects of GIS research and emergency management from the practitioner’s point of view.

“This GIS course definitely did not operate just in theoretical vacuum,” said Joshua Bailey, a first-year graduate student. “I’m happy to see that we developed useful prototypes.”