Campus GIS Will Improve Public Safety at LSU

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It’s 0-dark 30. You need to find the underground gas valve that controls service to a burning building and the two closest fire hydrants ­right now. On some college campuses that would mean getting the facilities manager out of bed to open the office and dig through a stack of paper drawings while firemen fan out looking for hydrants.

But on the Louisiana State University campus in Baton Rouge, the answers to both questions will soon be available to emergency responders using a laptop computer with a couple of mouse clicks. That’s just one part of the vision behind the first high-accuracy GIS mapping of the LSU campus now being performed by a team led by Joe Thompson of the campus police department.

"Supplying accurate data quickly to decision makers on the scene improves everyone’s safety," said Thompson. Whether it’s finding underground valves or hydrant locations, knowing what chemicals are in a building and exactly where they are, or pinpointing the location of an accident or crime scene, accurate information makes the response more efficient, and improves the safety of both emergency personnel and the surrounding community. Fast, accurate, information is exactly what the campus GIS will provide."

LSU is an ideal location for a project of this kind, because it is the home of the Center for GeoInformatics, one of the nation’s leading users of Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) data for scientific research. Under the leadership of Executive Director Roy Dokka, PhD, the Center operates GULFNet, a network of Continuously Operated Reference Stations (CORS) that covers Southern Louisiana to provide high accuracy reference positioning and vertical control points.

"Dr. Dokka, Associate Director Tony Cavell, and Dina Knight, a geospatial scientist with the center, have all been extremely helpful in this project," Thompson said. "GULFNet gives us an RTK capability on campus. We link our Topcon GMS-2 hand-held GPS receivers to the network via cell phones and Bluetooth to provide real-time error correction in the field.

"There have been some student GIS projects on campus in the past," Thompson continued, "but this is the first time it’s been done with equipment capable of sub-meter accuracy. We are literally starting from scratch and creating a brand new database. The existing one is accurate to about three meters, give or take, and now we will be down to centimeters. The new GIS database also will include much more information on many more locations. That’s really important when you’re dealing with emergency response."

Thompson’s project has already located more than 6,000 individual data points on the campus, including fire hydrants, thousands of sewer and communications manholes, and critical locations inside many buildings. Many of these have been recorded both visually and digitally using the built-in camera in the GMS-2.

"It’s really a handy feature," Thompson said, "because it gives you a visual reference that corresponds exactly to the GPS data that’s recorded simultaneously. We eventually plan to make some of the photos available to selected users online. Facility Services, for example, would be able to see photos of valves and hydrants along with the spatial positioning data.

"The images are sharp enough for most uses. You can tell if a manhole cover is for the sewer system or the communication system. We still use a high-resolution camera to photograph some things that require a higher level of detail, but pictures from the built-in camera are a lot easier to integrate into the GIS."

The LSU GIS will go online this fall, with the first users being the campus emergency operations center, dispatch center, and police department. Thompson said he plans to start out on a controlled scale and then expand the service to Campus Facilities and other departments as resources allow.

"Eventually, we will use an ARC-GIS server to deliver data to notebook computers in individual patrol cars," he said, "but, that’s a little further off. We are also working on ways to share GIS data with other agencies like the Baton Rouge police, fire, and EMS departments, the sheriff, state police, parish emergency services, and even federal agencies."

Thompson already has tapped into FEMA’s GIS experience for advice on the best ways to process the data being captured on campus. He has also explored the Homeland Security aspects of the project with relevant agencies and personnel.

Virtually all of the data for the LSU GIS is being acquired with the Topcon GMS-2 handheld GPS receiver. Thompson said it is a rugged, compact system that receives signals from the 32-satellite GPS constellation, and the 18-satellite Russian GLONASS constellation. In practice, this means that the GMS-2 is virtually always in communication with enough GNSS satellites to deliver accurate positioning data 24/7.

"Due to the heat here in Baton Rouge," Thompson explained, "we do much of our field work in the early morning, so neither the GMS-2’s 24/7 capability, nor the ability to hot-swap batteries have been critical to us­yet.

"But," he added, "we are supporting an emergency response system, and emergencies don’t always happen at convenient times and places. These features could be critically important under many circumstances in which the GMS-2 receivers and the GIS system might be used.

"One thing I have found is that these units are really tough. I have no hesitation at all about handing one of the GMS-2 receivers to someone from emergency services and sending them out into the field to record locations. The GMS-2 is tough and will survive, and that’s no small accomplishment."

While Thompson has received technical assistance from the Center for GeoInformatics, little formal training on the Topcon GMS-2 itself was required.

"One of the beauties of the GMS-2 is that it’s easy to use," said Tony Cavell, "so volunteers can be trained quickly. Then you just put a GMS-2 in their hands and assign them a task like finding all the oak trees on campus, or locating sidewalks or building fronts.

"With little expense or training they can collect a lot of correct data very quickly, which is something you could not do with survey grade equipment. Actually, the GMS-2 is perfect for collecting about ninety percent of the data you’d put in a GIS because it simply does not require survey grade accuracy.

"We had some challenges getting everything working on the network," Cavell said, "but I can’t say that was because of the GMS-2. After all, we were trying to add a new device, plus cell phone and Bluetooth communication to an existing network all at once. But between our people and Topcon’s support staff it didn’t take long to get everything working harmoniously."

Right now, Thompson is completing initial data acquisition, which he plans to complete by late summer. Then once the database is completed and the necessary communication software is delivered the roll-out will begin.

"The target is to soon have GIS data available in patrol cars," Thompson said, "but that depends on more than just completing the GIS. We have to set up the servers and server software and do a bit of user training."

Of course, even that won’t be the end of the LSU GIS project. The database will require continuous updating as the campus grows and changes.

Facilities Department is laying hundreds of feet of new sidewalk, and building new parking areas right now," Thompson noted. "That will all have to be recorded and entered into the database.

"They will also have to update their AutoCad maps," he said, "because we’ve already found some hydrants that aren’t on them, and some others that aren’t where they’re supposed to be. That’s what accurate data is all about."

Once the LSU GIS is online, Thompson foresees a growing list of uses for the data. One of those will be to map campus crime and accident locations to support enhanced enforcement efforts. Another is to link the GIS with existing and planned surveillance camera installations both on campus and, eventually, throughout Baton Rouge.

"The first step in this direction will be to display incident and accident locations in real-time so command officers can look at a computer screen and see exactly what is happening and where it’s happening," Thompson explained. "At first we’ll display icons to identify the event; flames for a fire, a car or an accident, that sort of thing. "But, I can easily see the day when we will display real-time video instead."

Thompson believes it’s only a matter of time until federal, state, and local agencies are all linked via a common GIS system. Then, if a local accident closes a road, or a disaster destroys a bridge, authorities can instantly reroute emergency responders to make sure vital services are delivered as quickly as possible­even at 0-dark 30.

Doug Drummond is the owner of National Editorial Services of Northport, Michigan. He provides freelance writing and photography services for the surveying, agriculture and construction industries.

A 2.595Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE