California is a state of extremes. While some regions struggle with chronic drought, others drown in storms brewed up by El Nino, the increase in Pacific Ocean temperatures that occurs roughly every three to seven years.
San Bernardino County gets less than 20 inches of rain a year, but it’s prone to flash flooding as storms roll in from the ocean, over mountains, and on to the Mohave Desert to the east. With El Nino expected to exacerbate extreme weather patterns, the nation’s largest county decided to more accurately target emergency monitoring and response resources by replacing slow manual processes and paper log records with tablets and a ready-to-use app.
Improving collection protocol
When intense rain is predicted, Public Works prepares to dispatch patrol teams to report damaged facilities, eroding channels, and basin water levels at specific locations along designated routes.
Until recently, Department Operations Center (DOC) employees called each team hourly to get information. Then they waited until the end of the shift – sometimes 12 hours – to add the final details when team members turned in their handwritten logs. There were other inefficiencies as well.
“We didn’t have a way to tabulate data very effectively or disseminate it to the center,” says Deputy Director Annesley Ignatius.
He asked the county’s Geographic Information Management Systems (GIMS) group for a data collection and mapping tool that would collect and share information with the operations center and other field responders from any type of mobile device. The result is a communications feedback loop that works in near-real time.
GIS Manager Ryan Hunsicker and his team used software-as-a-service products developed by Esri in Redlands, Calif. The cloud-based ArcGIS Online hosting platform includes Collector for ArcGIS, a tool for collecting and organizing field data.
The GIMS group used Collector to collect data on each patrol route, which include non-public roads and flood control roads not found on conventional maps. Dashed lines indicate a potentially hazardous location and that the route should be driven only during the day.
Collector walks crews through a set of yes or no questions regarding obstructions, water level, flow back-ups, rain intensity, etc., at designated stops along their route. If the answer is yes, the crew takes photos and writes comments in the app’s note box. Crews can also report issues, such as a felled tree blocking a road, at unassigned points along the route.
“Each stop has multiple observations and we want crews to record each operation at the same point throughout the shifts,” says Hunsicker. “Once we decided on the questions for each stop, I put them into the app template. It’s simple to use and captures the data we want with fewer errors.”
Collector geo-tags the entry and uploads the information to ArcGIS Online, which feeds the data into an Operations Dashboard application. At the operations center, the incoming information is noted in the corner of a map of the 20,105-square-mile county projected onto a large screen. The information is updated every 30 seconds to give managers a near-instantaneous picture of reservoir levels, blockages caused by debris, and other information they need to tighten response operations.
The operations center sends a note back to the patrol crew confirming the information was received and creates a work order, such as “send a bulldozer to this location to clean up this debris.” When the task is completed, the worker types the update on the app. The work order’s status change to “closed” instantly appears on the operations center map. Documenting every step, from observation to assignment to completion, ensures prompt and effective incident response.
The map also shows the location and status of response vehicles, road closures, displays incidents reported by other responders such as the fire department, and reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service.
“This system helps us manage dispatch activities,” Hunsicker says. “Its near-real-time maps show the positions of our field staff along with the locations of any concern they encounter along their storm patrol routes.”
Because the data that’s collected is archived in ArcGIS Online, managers can perform analyses whenever they want. For instance, the native web app Time Aware configuration template was used to show how the sequence of events unfolded. Public Works can improve future response by targeting areas prone to flooding for mitigation efforts.