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The Role of Geographic

Information Systems/Remote
Sensing in Disaster Management
Deborah S.K. Thomas, Kivanç Ertuĝay,
and Serkan Kemeç

Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Remote Sensing (RS), and Global Positioning Sys-
tems (GPS) have gained much attention for their applications in disaster management and
are increasingly utilized throughout the entire disaster management cycle as a tool to support
decision making. GIS is commonly recognized as a key support tool for disaster management
(Mileti, 1999). The visualization capabilities of these systems have almost become expected
by policymakers, disaster managers, and even the public.
The mapping of hazards and the impacts on people has a long and rich history with roots in
many basic cartographic concepts (Hodgson & Cutter, 2001; Monmonier, 1997). For example,
daily weather maps were first produced in Europe and then in the 1800s in the United States.
The Sanborn Company compiled systematic maps of urban hazards for fire insurance in major
U.S. cities starting in the 1870s. The systematic mapping of hazard zones in relation to human
settlement patterns for understanding human response can be linked to Gilbert White in the
1960s and 1970s (Burton, Kates, & White, 1993; White, 1974). The real expansion of the
application of GIS to disasters began with the advent of ubiquitous computer use, especially
affordable desktop computers and software in the late 1980s and 1990s. Along with software
and hardware availability, increasing numbers of hazard datasets, both for the United States
and internationally, have become accessible and the application of GIS technology has rapidly
expanded in both disaster research and practice.
Even though geographic questions have long been of concern to both disaster researchers
and practitioners alike, the proliferation of GIS has essentially increased the capacity of those
in the disaster community to incorporate geographic approaches. Knowing where hazard zones
are located and understanding the relationship to the distribution of people (and subgroups)
is fundamental to developing mitigation strategies or creating preparedness plans. Real-time
geographic data can improve the allocation of resources for response. Of course, geographic
approaches are much more complex than this and extend beyond only the use of GIS, remote

84 Deborah S.K. Thomas, Kivanç Ertuĝay, and Serkan Kemeç

sensing, and GPS, but these technologies model geographic aspects of disaster risk and human
adaptation to hazards.
Rather than focusing entirely on the technical aspects of these tools, this chapter con-
centrates on these technologies as part of a spatial (geographic) decision support system for
disaster management (SDSS). This encompasses some technical aspects in addition to orga-
nizational issues. Key to taking this perspective is that a decision support system is just that;
it meets the needs of the practitioner while at the same time integrating current physical and
social science approaches. Thus, the SDSS must be firmly based in current research as well as
meeting the needs of decision makers who utilized the systems. The first part of the chapter
discusses SDSSs, followed by examples of current application in disaster management, and in
conclusion presents some directions for future research.



Disaster management requires complex coordination between resources, equipment, skills,

and human resources from a wide variety of agencies.This multifaceted process thus necessi-
tates strong decision support systems to foster cooperation and assist disaster loss reduction
(Assilzadeh & Mansor, 2004; Pourvakhshouri & Mansor, 2003). Interoperability of emergency
services is especially necessary during response and relief phases and is supported by an SDSS
(Zlatanova, van Oosterom & Verbree 2004). Importantly, an SDSS also plays a vital role in
mitigation and planning. Advanced decision support systems must perform sophisticated tasks
at the right place and in the right moment, involving problem definition, identification of alter-
natives, and analyses and evaluation of alternatives followed by selection of the best alternative
(DeSilva, 2001). GIS alone cannot fulfill this role, but is an integral piece in a robust system that
supports decision makers, whether these are disaster managers, policymakers, first responders,
or the public.

Spatial Decision Support Systems

GIS is an interface for handling, collecting, sharing, recording, analyzing, updating, organizing,
and integrating spatial (geographic) data, derived from maps, remote sensing, or GPS. In the
most basic sense, GIS allows for the mapping of all hazard-related data, transforming it into
visual information. Within a GIS, a database is directly connected to the graphical mapped
information and so data can be manipulated and mapped, or a user can interact with the map to
retrieve data. A GIS also incorporates analytical functions. Thus, GIS are fundamentally used
to explore spatial relationships. For instance, by viewing floodplains along with hospitals and
roads, a disaster manager could select all of the hospitals in the floodplain or delineate which
roads accessing a hospital might flood. Or, the GIS could be used to evaluate which schools
are near fault zones or in floodplains for the purpose of prioritizing mitigation strategies or
for evacuation planning. In addition to simply compiling inventories of hazard risk, the built
environment, infrastructure, and vulnerable populations, GIS can relate these to one another.
The challenge is that GIS technology alone cannot always provide problem-specific model
support (e.g., vehicle routing or flood models frequently exist independent of a GIS). Standard
GIS software are usually general purpose systems and do not focus on specific problem areas
without integrating with other types of software packages. Further, a GIS can only partly
model, test, and compare among alternatives to evaluate a specific problem (Pourvakhshouri &