The commonwealth of Virginia has launched a geospatial data-sharing initiative that it expects to be fully operational a year from now and hopes will provide a model that can be replicated nationwide within five years.

“It will allow us to share information between jurisdictions that we’re already partnering with,” said Charles Werner, chief of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department.

As the project progressed, it was discovered that the vast majority of information that agencies would want or need to share with each other already exists, according to Werner.

“That was really cool—I’d say that 95% of this information exists, and that’s probably true in other places, as well,” he said.

A key component of the project, which is funded by a Public Safety Interoperable Communications (PSIC) grant, was the creation of a geospatial information viewer that all participating agencies can use.

“That means each locality doesn’t have to do its own thing,” Werner said. “It immediately moves local jurisdictions … into a multijurisdictional information-sharing model, which makes the ability to share information across disciplines much easier.”
Chris McIntosh, the commonwealth’s interoperable communications coordinator, agreed.

“This is a very easy way of doing things, and most agencies already have the tools to do this,” he said.

Even though the initiative centers on a multijurisdictional mindset, local agencies still will be able to view information in the way that they need to view it, according to McIntosh.

“It’s very flexible—they don’t have to change their business processes,” he said.

A big advantage of Virginia’s approach is that it is dynamic. As each participating entity—for example, government agencies, first responder agencies, public works, transportation and utilities—adds information to the system, that data becomes available to the other entities, seamlessly and in real-time. Also important is the ability to create “awareness packages,” Werner said.

“For instance, I can create a severe-weather package,” he said. “So, when such an event occurs, all someone has to do is click one button and all of the pertinent information is in front of them. All of the layers are there. Before, if you used GIS, you’d have to go in and turn on the individual layers each time.”

There’s a plethora of information that can be shared in such a circumstance, including power outages, road construction and closures, fire-hydrant locations, the location of hospitals and trauma centers, traffic and surveillance videos, weather updates and damage reports, as well as standard operating procedures specific to the incident for each agency.

CAD is on there, too,” McIntosh said. “They’ll know where the fire trucks and school buses are.”

While some might think that Virginia simply is replicating Virtual USA, the data-sharing initiative launched by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security a couple of years ago, it is not, according to McIntosh, who was one of Virtual USA architects, along with Werner,.

“This takes the lessons learned from Virtual USA,” McIntosh said. “It’s an order of magnitude beyond that.”

More than that, the initiative represents a paradigm shift in terms of how information is shared and by whom, according to Werner. For example, a state (the commonwealth of Virginia), a state-sponsored institution (the University of Virginia), a private entity (Virginia Dominion Power) and a municipality (the city of Charlottesville) are participating.

“This project has achieved data interoperability across jurisdictions, across disciplines and with the private sector,” Werner said. “Moreover, it provides an effective way to prepare, respond, mitigate and recover from significant planned and unplanned events or incidents.”