Saturday, December 29, 2012

"What is a Field Map?"

So you are on an active Search Operation and someone asks for an assignment map. What do you do? Well hopefully you have already read and digested the Using GIS in Wildland Search and Rescue text and are using the MapSAR templates. Here, Don Ferguson and I dig a little deeper into the topic of what to put on an assignment map.


The Task Assignment, or Field Map is an essential element for search teams going into the field in response to search and rescue operations.  These maps provide assistance with team navigation as well as the ability to communicate certain attributes about specific location (e.g. the position of a clue).

Although these maps play a critical role in team safety and search effectiveness, there doesn't appear to be a documented effort at standardizing the basic layout and the information contained in the map. ASTM standards F 1846 and F 2099 have provided guidelines for map symbology and the use of UTM grids, respectively, but these standards stop short of suggested critical information that should be presented on the map itself. In addition, with the adoption of US National Grid as a standard for all Public Safety agencies in the United States you will need to make some modifications to your old UTM/lat long habits soon. For a dynamic USNG overlay you can use web services found on ArcGIS Online or check out the ArcGIS Desktop Help documentation: Adding an MGRS and U.S. National Grid.

What about basemaps? What should we use? The USGS 1:24,000 topographical map has long been the de facto standard map used by wilderness SAR teams in the United States as these maps have provided basic information on geographic features to assist with navigation. These can also be found on ArcGIS Online or downloaded from most State GIS Portals for free. Given the familiarity of SAR personnel with the format of the USGS topo map, teams often settle on a layout similar to that of the USGS maps with information limited to this basemap.  While this may have been adequate for keeping teams safe in the field it may not provide sufficient information for emergency response and effective search operation. In addition, most of the maps are now out of date or will not feature recent hazards.

In today's world of digital mapping we now have the ability to not only create our own map templates for populating broader information but we can also create our own maps combining up-to-date geospatial information with various types of basemaps (imagery, topography, streetmaps, etc).  This not only supports a greater situational awareness for the teams in the field but also critical connectivity between field operations and overall search management.

Finally, what else do we need to have on an assignment map? Although during a search operation maps may be created for a variety of needs, we focus here on field maps that accompany task assignments.  These maps must clearly communicate the task assignment as well as provide detailed information regarding travel routes and navigational aides, hazards and position.  In building a basic field map, we can consider both required elements and optional elements:

Basemap: Topographic map, Imagery with other data, Streetmap, etc.  Keep in mind how the map will look when printed in black and white just in case you need to make photocopies. Remember, imagery alone IS NOT A MAP.

Grid: Lat-Long, UTM, US National Grid or some combination.

Map Elements (S.T.A.N.D.D.): 

  • Scale: Responders need to be able to relate distances and size on the map to the real world. If the map is “not to scale” then write that on the map. Be careful as map scale may change with copying process.

  • Title: The title should actually include various information including: Incident name, Incident Number, Map Name and Task Assignment Number.  Assignment number also provides a link to the Operational Period for the assignment.

  • Author: The person and agency that created the map.

  • North Arrow: This should always be on the map.  Since the maps may also be used for navigation by compass you should also include reference to Magnetic Declination.

  • Date: The date and time information gathered should be written somewhere on the map.

  • Datum: The datum of the coordinates on the map This is important information for relaying coordinates and for GPS use.

Command points / ICS Features: Initial Planning Point, ICP, Radio Relays, etc

Legend: Especially, if non-standard symbols are used.

Task Assignment: This should be clearly indicated on the map.

You can also take a look at the GIS Standard Operation Procedures for more insight. We'd love to see some examples of your assignment maps and share what others are doing with the SARGIS community. So send us your maps and let us know if you have any questions.


Sunday, December 9, 2012

Pre-planning is Half the Battle

Here at the MapSAR Training in San Bernardino there have been a lot of meaningful sidebar conversations. Speaking with a member of Ventura County SAR, I felt like it was time to open a broader discussion on Search Operation pre-planning. We want to know, what types of geographic features you are using on operations?

Here is a list we discussed:
  • Roads
  • Trails
  • Trailheads
  • Streams
  • Powerlines
These are just some of the datasets that should be included in your Minimal Essential Dataset (MED) and could be used for planning search segments in advance of an incident.


However, over the past year our Using GIS in WiSAR group have been tinkering with the use of Watershed Boundaries for the use of planning areas or even starting points for segment delineation. 

*UPDATE* March 3rd 2017

Why watersheds?  "It is evident that the topography affects how people move through their environment, so instead of looking at how far they travel in a straight line from where they were last seen in order to predict where to look for them, perhaps it would be better to analyze the topographic features around them. One way in which to do this is by analyzing their movement between watersheds." - Read more in Jared Doke's MS Thesis.

This has been further supported in research by Elena Salva in a research article titled: Evaluating Lost Person Behavior Models

Now that the latest National Hydrological Dataset has been released, it would be a good idea to download the dataset and add it to your MED.


Then you can use some of the editing tools, such as cut polygons to begin breaking down the watershed boundaries into searchable segments by other features such as roads and trails.


This is a big breakthrough for Using GIS in WiSAR and researchers Jared Doke, Robert Koester, Don Ferguson, and Charles Twardy are testing these watershed boundaries against/with Lost Person Behavior models for determining Probability of Area. In addition Lori Peltz-Lewis will be working with GISCorps to make sure SAR Teams in California have this and other datasets for their MED.

I hope this post sparks discussion on pre-planning and discuss what others are doing or will do to prepare for their next search.

For those of you "North of the Border"....Here is a watershed data source that was forwarded to me today for Canada. I have not taken a look yet, but feel free to check out the

NHN dataset (Nation Hydro Network) that NRCAN provides. It has 1:50k data (interpolated from coarser data where finer data is not available) standardized across Canada. In some regions, the provinces have partnered up to provide better quality data and rely less on the
general computer model to compute the data.

*UPDATE* March 3rd 2017

The USA Watersheds are also available in ArcGIS Online for use in web maps, apps, and ArcGIS Pro through the Living Atlas of the World program. You can test this in the web mapping app embedded below.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

"Clip Before You Go"

Today I spoke with Brian Quinn, a GIS Analyst for the County of Marin, California. We were discussing how he can support Marin County SAR as they begin implementing MapSAR and building out Minimum Essential Datasets. On the one hand most vector data can be collected ahead of time and stored as geodatabase and/or layer packages. But sometimes you need to quickly grab new data on the fly. Together, we thought of a really quick way the Marin SAR Team could use Free and Public ArcGIS image services to clip raster data (basemaps, elevation models, imagery) before leaving the office.

Here is what we tested in ArcGIS Desktop.


  • Next Zoom into an Area of Interest and open the Image Analysis Window


  • Then use the Clip and Export buttons to grab the data you need


  • Finally, use your Using GIS for WiSAR textbook to figure out the best practice for adding this to your Minimum Essential Dataset (MED) within the MapSAR folder structure


These clipped rasters will now be available when you disconnect and can be added to your MapSAR document and printed on your maps. There will be size limitations but for most incident specific extents this should work. In the long term, you will need a more holistic approach to Data Management. See the Using GIS for WiSAR textbook.

For more information, see the Help on the Image Analysis Window. For another example of imagery deployed via free web services see the California Department of Fish and Game Map Services website.

This is just one of many ways you can collaborate with your local GIS Specialist. Most GIS Specialist are pretty friendly and eager to help because they likely found their profession in GIS by looking for meaningful work and making a difference. If you do SAR work, you likely have something in common. So - give them a call, buy them a beer, invite them to a SAR meeting, and send them to our SARGIS Discussion Group!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

“But I don’t work in a connected environment!”


Over the past year we have worked with Search and Rescue (SAR) volunteers at various training events (NASAR / MRA Conference, National SAR Academy, California SAREX, SARScene Canada) and presented on the topic of Using GIS in Missing Person Search Operations. We have been using a particular fictional case study – the Clark SAR – to practice new workflows built on the principles taught in Using GIS for Wildland Search and Rescue and for testing upgrades to MapSAR (an ArcGIS Desktop template designed for SAR, go to for more details).

Here is the scenario.

“The Search and Rescue team in Yosemite National Park, California has received a call about a lost hiker who was last seen at the Sunrise High Sierra Camp. He was scheduled to meet his companions at Vogelsang High Sierra Camp last night at 8 pm but never arrived.  Today, at 07:00, they reported him missing.  His companions said his travel plans were to hike from Sunrise to Merced Lake High Sierra Camp and stay overnight; and then hike the following day to Vogelsang High Sierra Camp and stay the night.”

Lesson 1: You can/should have your data organized in a way that supports both connected and disconnected workflows

First of all, when a report comes into the Ranger or County Sheriff office, most likely you are sitting in front of a web browser. To plot the point last seen or initial planning point you can use an ArcGIS Online web map like below.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="580"]Image ArcGIS Online Web Map for editing Initial Planning Points for situational awareness across organizations.[/caption]

With the new geoservices added to the locate tool in ArcGIS Online and the new design to the ArcGIS Online World Topographic Map it is easy to find an area by points of interest. If I already have an editable feature service for Missing Subject Information I can quickly enter essential information right on the map.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="436"]Image Editable feature services like this could be hosted by County, State, or Federal agencies so First Responders and SAR Volunteers can quickly document missing person information.[/caption]

Now I will add some trail data to the map by searching ArcGIS Online, add a map note of the initial search area, and upload the first hasty search team GPS track to my map by adding a gpx file directly to my web map.

Before I leave the office for the Incident Command Post (ICP), I will need to download my Minimum Essential Dataset for Search Operations for use in ArcGIS Explorer Desktop and ArcMap with MapSAR just in case we do not have internet connectivity at the ICP and we do not find the missing person right away.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="580"]Image Minimum Essential Datasets are discussed in the Using GIS for Wildland Search and Rescue text (free download from[/caption]

Lesson 2: You can collaborate with an intermittent or improvised connection

Now, while I am at the Incident Command Post (ICP) the Chief Ranger and the State Emergency Management Agency can see my initial planning map. A GIS Specialist trained using the MapSAR User’s Manual can see this map as well and begin working on assignment maps and spatial analyses.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="580"]Image Here an ArcGIS Online Group is being used to manage GIS data and applications for managing a search operation.[/caption]

At the ICP, I am waiting for internet connectivity, but still working on tracking clues as they come in over the radio plotting them by their coordinates, gps files, or geotagged photos using ArcGIS Explorer Desktop.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="580"]Image ArcGIS Explorer Desktop is a free and easy to use GIS-based software that is useful in the initial planning stages and throughout a SAR Operation for situational awareness.[/caption]

When the first Operational Period is over I can share all of the operational data as a layer package with my GIS Specialist through ArcGIS Online or an email – if internet connectivity is still an issue I can send a thumb drive to the office (or coffee shop with WiFi) and have someone upload it from there. In exchange – the GIS Specialist has sent me a large format briefing map, the Day 2 assignment maps, and even created an Incident Action Plan (IAP) web map.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="580"]Image Here is an assignment produced by Don Ferguson via remote collaboration during a table top exercise last month.[/caption]

With assignment maps like these I can get teams out into the field with timely and accurate information!

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="580"]Image This IAP map can be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection using a web browser or ArcGIS Online Mobile Applications.[/caption]

Lesson 3: Plan for the future or you won’t be ready when the future happens

At the end of Day 2, we have not found the missing subject. However, we have a few clues and investigative leads that help us prioritize our search area.

In addition, because we have created a detailed IAP map the Chief Ranger and State Emergency Management Agency have agreed to send us more resources. However, with more boots on the ground and helicopters in the sky, more data flows through the Incident Command Post. A GIS Specialist is en route to the ICP to help with data management and cartography using MapSAR. Meanwhile, a remote GIS Specialist continues to produce probability models based on the data coming in. All of this was made possible because we leveraged a centrally managed ArcGIS Online account meant to prototype a Federal or State Agency with volunteer SAR Team as members.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="580"]Image Here is a prototype ArcGIS Online Account that could be used by Emergency Management Agencies to support volunteer SAR Teams with Minimum Essential Datasets, Incident Groups for sharing data and maps, and editable feature services for up to date reporting.[/caption]

While this is just a training scenario, what he have learned is already being put into practice in the United States and Canada, join the SARGIS Discussion Group to find out more. Working in disconnected environments can be a major challenge for communication in all aspects of operations but that does not mean you do not have access to professional GIS tools and personnel. Subscribe to the Esri Public Safety Resource Center as we add more disconnected mapping applications and tools to simplify GIS workflows in the future. If you are a volunteer SAR Team, visit the Nonprofit Organization Program for more details and stay tuned for an announcement related to getting professional GIS help for your SAR Team. Are you ready for the future of Search and Rescue?

SARGIS Discussion Group

SARGIS Discussion Group

Join the discussion with Using GIS in WiSAR. A group to support the implementation of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) technology in SAR (Search and Rescue), emergency management, and day-to-day operations. Check out our membership map and be the first in your County, State, or Country to represent SARGIS. Sign up using your email on the right side of the page.

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Monday, December 3, 2012


[caption id="attachment_13" align="aligncenter" width="200"]MapSAR is a free tool that runs with ArcGIS 10 to store geospatial information, enabling SAR maps to be generated, stored, and printed quickly so that search teams can get out the door faster to look for the missing person. Click on the image above to go to the MapSAR website. MapSAR is a free tool that runs with ArcGIS 10 to store geospatial information, enabling SAR maps to be generated, stored, and printed quickly so that search teams can get out the door faster to look for the missing person.
This site gives a brief overview of what GIS is and how it can be used.
What is GIS? This site gives a brief overview of what GIS is and how it can be used.[/caption]