Mapping our way to quick disaster response

Geographic information system maps aim to protect homeland security
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By Kate O'Rourke

In a small county in the Midwest, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease occurs. A veterinarian contacts an official at the state department of agriculture, who identifies the farm from a map on his computer. Using his mouse, the official clicks on an area and instantly sees the roads leading to the farm and the topography of the surrounding area, including information about streams, water table levels, and land elevations. He identifies the location of nearby farms, livestock operations, food firms, and veterinary clinics, and has contact names and numbers for all. With another click of the mouse, he knows the location of all nearby backhoes, tractors, and other equipment that might be needed in an emergency, who owns it, and how to contact those persons.

While that particular situation is fictitious, the response scenario it portrays is not far-fetched. In states across the country, various agencies are in the process of developing layered geographic information system (GIS) maps that will allow this type of dynamic response in the event of an agricultural emergency. North Carolina, in many people's opinion, is leading the way, and has developed a fairly comprehensive and sophisticated map. Many other states—including Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Missouri, and Nebraska—have maps in various stages of progress. Most states have at least researched ways to begin projects. Many of the maps are being funded, in part, with money from the Department of Homeland Security, which is being funneled first to the Department of Agriculture and then to state animal health agencies. In some cases, funding comes directly from the USDA. Animal health agencies are compiling information from existing maps, collecting new data, and mapping resources using global positioning system technology.

"Funding for global positioning technology, infield computers, and mapping software is critical to having the ability to mount a rapid response in the event of a terrorist attack on the agriculture industry," said Dr. Colleen O'Keefe, acting state veterinarian at the Illinois Department of Agriculture. "It is imperative that the state be able to accurately locate animals at risk, and slaughter facilities and warehouses, and be able to identify sensitive environmental concerns in the case of an outbreak."

Illinois just recently received a $22,000 grant from DHS to purchase GPS equipment and has begun to develop a map for the Land of Lincoln.

Grants to other states have gone toward purchasing equipment and funding staff positions, including project coordinators and GIS specialists.

Some states have struggled, or are struggling, to come up with ways to collect certain types of data. Dr. Dave Hopson, staff veterinarian with the Missouri Department of Agriculture's Animal Health Division, says that obtaining data on livestock numbers is proving tricky. "The USDA's (National) Agricultural Statistics Service has this data, but they cannot release it outside their organization," Dr. Hopson said. His division has written letters to all counties in their state in an effort to get data on individual herds.

Dr. Robert Stout, homeland security coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, says his agency has also had difficulty obtaining herd data. "(Farmers) are a very private group of people," he said. "They are very independent, and I don't think they want that information shared." In addition, he points out, there are marketing issues. Everybody from a stockyard worker to a market auction owner (to an) order buyer has his or her own little niche. "All those people have a vested interest in their business and, in a way, ... are middlemen. If the database is constructed (so) that it could be accessed individually by some of these groups, some of these middlemen could be cut out," he said. "Obviously, they don't want that to happen." Dr. Stout says the KDA is working with industry to sort out privacy issues and devise a plan.

Dr. Marianne Ash, director of biosecurity and emergency planning at the Indiana State Board of Animal Health, says that she is focusing on partnerships to get the job done. So far, Indiana has all relevant information and GPS coordinates mapped for three counties. "We have used a combination of efforts and teamwork to come up with the kind of information we feel is important," Dr. Ash said.

For example, the Indiana board is working with the Indiana State Poultry Association, which represents commercial poultry operators. "What we have basically done is carried the technology to the industry, provided a format for them to capture the information that is consistent with the formats we are using with other industries and across the state, and (provided) whatever training is necessary," Dr. Ash said. "Those at risk are thus assuming the burden and cost of trying to capture that information, making it readily accessible to the people that need to know if we have an emergency."

This arrangement also protects the security of the information. "There is concern about everyone and their brother having that information, so this gives them some comfort, and we believe, then, that we get better compliance," Dr. Ash explained.

Since people move jobs, places are built and razed, and processes change, having people close to a situation gathering the data is important. "A lot of our efforts have been trying to team up with other entities to get a more complete database that can be kept up in a realistic manner," Dr. Ash said.

The Indiana State Board of Animal Health has also benefited from working with local county chapters of the Cooperative State, Research, Education and Extension Service. County extension workers have driven the roads and collected relevant information, including the locations of livestock premises and important livestock resources, Dr. Ash said. In an emergency, for example, it would be important to know the location of livestock trailers if you need to move animals, slaughter plants and landfills if you need to dispose of animals, and backhoes if you need to dig holes.

Mike Sampson is the agency liaison for the Division of Animal Health at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. The mapping project in his state is in the early stages, and he is vocal about its potential benefits. "The last thing we want to try to do is be in the middle of an outbreak, have to get carcasses in the ground within 24 hours, and have no place to put them," Sampson commented. Procuring information from the state Department of Natural Resources regarding soil type and percolation, for example, will be helpful when individuals need to identify where carcasses can be safely buried, he explained.

Dr. Ash painted a picture of how she expects a layered GIS map to come in handy. Suppose an infectious agent were identified on a farm, she said, an individual could sit in their office, identify the farm on the map, draw a circle around the farm with a radius of 10 miles, identify all other farmers in that area, and generate a list of their phone numbers. "You can immediately then call these people and say, 'secure the farm, we need to get out there and emergency vaccinate,' or (ask) 'are you seeing any signs or symptoms?'" Dr. Ash said. "I can do the work of 25 people that might take five days, in a matter of seconds."

If an emergency required the disposal of infected carcasses, you could easily circumnavigate livestock operations because you would know their locations. "If we don't have a map, then somebody is just going to take the quickest route," Dr. Ash said.

The maps can also be powerful epidemiologic tools. If spatial data are linked to other data, sometimes being able to visually analyze a situation can provide a clue as to how a disease is spreading, down a creek or via a truck route, for example. And the list of potential benefits goes on.

It may be awhile before all states have developed comprehensive layered GIS maps, but states are making progress. The maps will surely be useful in implementing the national animal identification plan (see JAVMA, Feb 1, 2004). And while the primary aim is to protect agriculture and homeland security, some states have already discovered the maps can be useful for disaster response in general.

During the summer of 2003, Indiana found their maps useful to identify people who had resources that could help the state's flood victims.