Every Conversation in Public Safety Is Around a Map

Russ Johnson, Esri public safety manager, tells why he's passionate about his job and shares some of his life stories including his role as incident commander during the Yellowstone National Park fire. 

Mar 6th, 2011

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00:01I want to take some time and kind of explain to you how I ended up at Esri and why I do what I do...

00:06...and why it's important to me.

00:08In order to do that, I felt that by sharing some of my previous experiences...

00:13...it would lead you to understand why this is so important to me and part of my life's work.

00:20When I started off in the fire service, this map was a central part of everything I did.

00:28This map would tell me where the emergency was, where the supplies were, where my fellow workers were...

00:36...where the helispots were, where the incident might go, where the danger spots were.

00:44Every conversation in public safety around an incident is around a map.

00:48And when you don't have a map, you're sketching a map in the dirt.

00:52So this became a really important part of my life, ingrained in what I did.

01:00Later in life, in a weak moment somebody said, you ought to go into the smoke jumpers.

01:05And I went, yeah, that sounds good.

01:08Have you ever signed up for something at the time and it sounded like a really good idea?

01:11And then when it was time to do it you went, you want me to do what? Really?

01:16Well, I went ahead and did that.

01:19And guess what?

01:20The map became even more important.

01:23As you can see by the picture, you're jumping into areas that you've never been.

01:28There are no, at times, obvious features and landmarks.

01:32I wanted to make sure somebody knew where I was.

01:35And I also wanted to know before I jumped into that area what was the shortest way out.

01:41Because we were carrying a lot of gear, and I didn't want to have to carry it any further than I needed to.

01:50Later in my career, I finally achieved an incident commander's role for one of the national teams.

01:58And I was kind of basking in the glory of that prestigious position, and we got a call and said, you have an incident.

02:05Great, where we going?

02:06They said Yellowstone.

02:07I went, Yellowstone, how cool is that?

02:10Well the whole place was on fire so it really wasn't that cool.

02:16To complicate that, they said, this is one of the U.S.'s national treasures...

02:21...and under no circumstances can this burn.

02:25You have to protect this, one of your number one priorities.

02:30Then they told me the rest of the story.

02:32Most of the regular firefighting resources were assigned to communities that were on fire, Cook City, West Yellowstone.

02:40They said, all we have to give you is one fire truck and the United States Army battalion.

02:47And having the Army was great, but they're not trained firefighters.

02:52They didn't understand tactics and strategy for fires and extreme conditions, and these were as extreme as they got.

03:00So what became important was the map.

03:05We sat for hours looking at this map saying, okay, if this fire lines up and it comes into Yellowstone...

03:11...where are we going to position people?

03:14How are we going to bring them back into the area?

03:17Because we could not put untrained firefighters into an area like this as the fire came through.

03:23So we had to take a completely different strategy.

03:26We had to wait 'til the fire came through and then move people in.

03:29This map and the precision of our planning became critical.

03:32So once again, the map played a really important part of what we were doing.

03:39So as the fire did begin to line up as it did set itself up with the wind behind it to come into Yellowstone...

03:46...we foamed the Old Faithful lodge and moved everybody out, moved them completely out of the way.

03:54Myself and one other person sat at the top of the Old Faithful Inn and watched and waited for the fire to line up.

04:02And our role was to sit there, wait 'til the fire came through and then call the troops in to do their job.

04:12That's what it looked like.

04:15I remember this now as if it happened yesterday.

04:19And it was a scary moment.

04:22And I was pretty trained.

04:23I was pretty comfortable, but I still had the tendency to run.

04:27Not only because of the fire but because I could see the lodge burning...

04:30...and I didn't want to stand in front of the media explaining how that happened.

04:35But we were successful.

04:38We brought the troops in, put the fires out, lost a few outbuildings, but generally successful.

04:44And the map was the key reason that we were successful, the planning we did with the map.

04:58Then something really tragic happened.

05:01Towards the end of my career, a fire occurred called Storm King Mountain.

05:06A fire in rough terrain, a fire that jumpers jumped into, hotshot crews were brought in.

05:14They didn't have really good maps, Xeroxed copies of maps.

05:18They did not have good situational awareness in a really bad situation.

05:25They did not have the information that a weather front was developing that would bring extreme winds into the area.

05:32They didn't have situational awareness that they needed.

05:37As a result, the fire blew up, and these 14 young, vibrant people perished.

05:47Tragic.

05:49Made an unbelievable impression on me on how important what we do is...

05:53...and the ability to get information to people so this does not happen.

06:00Today, our technology, our ArcGIS system with its capability to support data management...

06:06...good planning so we understand where not to put people, its ability to provide situational awareness.

06:13Back at the EOC, at the ICP, and in the field with the mobile devices you saw, we can change this.

06:20This should never happen again.

06:24But we need partners to help bring this together and build solutions so that it doesn't.

Copyright 2014 Esri
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