The public-safety community always seems to learn new lessons when it responds to disasters. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, leaving much of the city underwater, emergency personnel had difficulty pinpointing emergencies because street signs were submerged.

That was a wake-up call for the first-responder community. Now a grassroots effort involving many local public-safety agencies has emerged to promote adoption of a single standard, the Federal Geographic Data Committee’s U.S. National Grid (USNG), that would provide first responders with a nationally consistent and more easily understood location language

The USNG is an alphanumeric point reference system that has been overlaid on the Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) numerical grid. As such, locations in a discrete area can be described using eight digits. By adding a two-letter prefix, such as XX 12345 6798, the location is identified regionally. This alpha-numeric designator already is compatible with most consumer GPS receivers.

The U.S. mapping sciences community began working on the USNG initiative in 1997, and today it is used by federal agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the military and the National Guard.

A single standard also promises to eliminate certain location problems that public safety faces. During emergencies and disasters across the country, public-safety officials arriving at the scene from different departments and jurisdictions, at the federal, state and local levels, have discovered that despite using GPS location technology, the locally produced map grids they use for location reporting are often different than what is used outside of their departments, hampering their ability to respond to emergencies. Moreover, say a worker on a farm calls for an emergency; paramedics may respond to a certain address but don’t know what part of the farm the person is located.

“The national grid enables users to use a grid identified by a specific number using XY coordinates, which makes it a simple and common process,” said Charles Werner, chief of the Charlottsville, Va., Fire Department and chair of the Technology Council of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). “This is one of those natural steps that we have to take.”

The IAFC is working to spread the word about the USNG to local communities. Werner said converting to the mapping method isn’t a matter of cost for local public-safety agencies, since a number of free software applications are available that can convert GPS signals into the USNG format.

“It’s just a matter of producing maps and changing field operations where it becomes a critical application,” he said.