Continual Preparation Sets Up NCR for COVID-19 Response

Colorado’s North Central All-Hazards Emergency Management Region (NCR) has a long history of working together to prepare and respond to typical Front Range emergencies such as wildfires and tornadoes. COVID-19 is a new type of emergency but the strength in the NCR community, appropriate systems, methods, tools, processes, data, and policy developed over the last decade, has made it possible to respond quickly and with continuous value to the COVID-19 needs of regional policy makers and responders.

One of the essential characteristics of the NCR’s ability to respond quickly was the adoption years ago of the Esri product set with its robust partner ecosystem and standard use across the region enabling simple extensions and capabilities to support the COVID-19 response and recovery. When COVID-19 struck, there were additional data themes necessary including healthcare capacity (ICU beds, PPE, ventilators, etc.) and school meal distribution sites that had not been contemplated years ago. The NCR team quickly came together and determined that rather than building a new solution to solve this challenge, they would simply add capability to their current platform. Contributors include the NCR, including the GIS staff and emergency managers at member counties, the National Alliance for Public Safety GIS (NAPSG), Esri, and Critigen.

“It is critical in any emergency response to have accurate and complete information that enables critical decision-making at all levels. Our platform, powered by Esri and executed by Critigen and many other partners, provides a key tool that enables emergency response leaders to make the key decisions that will save lives and provide comfort”.

Scott Kellar, the Region’s Homeland Security Coordinator

What is the key takeaway from this? Choosing the right platform and ecosystem provides leadership and operators the tools they need when they need it to execute their mission. These choices are not one-time events but are programmatic and require strong leadership; something NCR has in spades.

Colorado’s North Central Region

Colorado’s North Central All-Hazards Emergency Management Region (NCR) is one of nine emergency preparedness and response regions within the State of Colorado. In 2003, the State enacted law establishing the all-hazards emergency response regions to better support inter-county emergency response coordination and foster professional and mutual aid relationship development. The NCR is comprised of the ten counties (including cities, districts, towns, and municipalities) within and surrounding the Denver metro region. Specifically:

  • Adams County
  • Arapahoe County
  • Boulder County
  • Broomfield County
  • Clear Creek County
  • Denver County
  • Douglas County
  • Elbert County
  • Gilpin County
  • Jefferson County

Functional areas include but are not limited to emergency management, law enforcement, fire services, public health, hospital organizations, regional transport, and financial services. NCR partners include the Denver Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), the NCR Health Care Coalition (HCC), The American Red Cross, Foothills Regional Emergency Medical and Trauma Advisory Council (RETAC), and the Mile High RETAC.

Regional GIS Repository

In the years following the establishment of the NCR, a Regional GIS Committee, comprised of representatives of NCR and County GIS, was formed with the primary objective of improving the sharing and accessibility of spatial information across the region. In 2008, the GIS Committee released the regional GIS repository—a centralized geodatabase containing land ownership, transportation infrastructure, public safety facilities, schools, hydrography, jurisdictional boundaries, and demographic information in a common schema for the entire region. An associated portal leveraging Esri’s ArcGIS Server serves the datasets for viewing purposes.

The currency of the data is maintained on monthly updates from County GIS stakeholders. This is a huge accomplishment given the innate difficulties of merging datasets from various counties managing their unique data to meet their jurisdictional needs. Safe Software’s FME Server Extract, Transform and Load (ETL) capabilities are leveraged in the solution to allow each county to upload their data in its own format, therefore reducing the efforts and hindrances of county GIS staff regularly contributing to the regional dataset. The data residing in the NCR GIS repository is used by local, regional, and state planners for the development of planning documents for emergency preparedness, response, mitigation, and recovery.

Even with this monumental win for the NCR—a common regional dataset containing highly sought-after information during both blue and non-blue-sky days—lacking was a regional common operating picture allowing incident command, emergency management and leadership to have a shared situational understanding. The NCR started setting their eyes on the implementation of a situational awareness solution for the region.

Situational Awareness Solution

In 2018, the Arapahoe County Office of Emergency Management, on behalf of the NCR, secured funding for a regional situational awareness solution through the State Homeland Security Grant Program (HSGP). The focus of this Region-wide project is to establish a regional tool that captures the myriad of operational information that is up-loaded by field and EOC operators on a near real time basis. The vision is to create a collaborative regional mapping tool that creates a shared common operating picture for all levels of command and decision makers. Enabling Incident Commanders, Emergency Operation Centers and Policy Groups with accurate, authoritative, and evolving incident information will significantly enhance their ability to make critical and timely decisions during an incident. Long term, the project team believes that the SA Tool will also enhance resource tracking and mobilization across jurisdictional boundaries. A final, but important tenet of the project is to minimize the impact and load on local governmental staff to populate the system. Informational updates to the SA Tool will be designed as a ‘push’ or ‘pull’ from existing local governmental systems. Thereby minimizing and manpower requirement to support and populate the Regional tool. The proposed SA Tool architecture combines various tools—incident dashboards, situational awareness viewer, editing application, current weather, traffic, utility outages, etc.—in a briefing for the monitoring and management of incidents across the region. More importantly, the solution supports the aggregation of live, operational information (e.g., incident locations, evacuation areas, shelter openings) from the numerous emergency operations centers (EOCs) in the region, eliminating static copies of data that quickly become outdated and irrelevant during an incident. The regional reference data (e.g., addresses, parcels, streets) residing in the NCR geodatabase are included as supporting layers.

NCR GIS Committee selected Esri’s Emergency Management Industry Solution as the framework for the organization’s situational awareness tool. The industry solution contains configurable applications and templates including recommended data schemas that can be implemented in a matter of hours. Both Esri’s ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS Enterprise are platforms leveraged in the solution to serve content both publicly (open) and privately (secure) to NCR residents, visitors, emergency managers, public safety personnel, and civic leadership. Upcoming objectives are to incorporate public safety vehicle locations (AVL feeds) and emergency response and building plans.

Collaborating Partnerships

The NCR has established several private and public partnerships that are proving key to the development of its SA Tool prototype. The Regional GIS Committee incorporates all the willing local government GIS departments (county, city, special district) and conducts outreach efforts to State Department partners as well. The Region also has a very strong relationship with the NAPSG and is currently supporting one of their pilot projects addressing flood response and support. The Region’s relationship with NAPSG has also created opportunities for information sharing and inclusion of best practices that NAPSG identified from across the nation. Lastly, the Region has a 12-year relationship with Critigen, its primary private sector support partner and Esri, a more recent partnership, both of which are critical to the Region’s future success with this project. The blended team of public, private, and non-profit participants has proven key to the project development as well as the dynamic response to the COVID-19 emergency.

COVID-19 Response

On March 5, 2020, Governor Polis of Colorado announced the state’s first cases of COVID-19 and declared a state of emergency on March 10 when the state had just 17 confirmed coronavirus cases. As the spread of COVID-19 took shape in the state in the month of March, the NCR started to identify ways it could leverage its existing platform in its response. As the severity of the situation increased, the NCR GIS Committee began meeting on a more regular basis and started creating and publishing various geospatial apps, including dashboards, with a focus on COVID-19. By March 26, on the heels of the State’s Stay-at-Home Order announcement, the NCR established weekly GIS update meetings (virtual) with the primary objectives of:

  • Identifying core information needs for COVID-19 (currently provided, future needs, anticipated needs, and problem areas)
  • Providing member status on COVID-19-related activities
  • Discussing technical details for implementing COVID-19 information products

Additionally, a second weekly meeting (virtual) was established for the broader emergency management and response disciplines within the NCR to obtain current COVID-19 response status, challenges, and information needs.

Many organizations around the world raced to create COVID-19 related web sites, including numerous statistical dashboards. Some apps developed were better than others with regards to data accuracy, content relevancy, and communication effectiveness. The NCR members and affiliates worked together to select apps and dashboards with the greatest maturity, update frequency, validity, and legibility to create single sources of truth for the region. Then the team supported each other in making these selected COVID-19 related resources even better. The weekly web meetings, ad-hoc phone calls, and daily emails supported by the team fostered an agile and collaborative environment for meeting the demands and desires of COVID-19 related information for the region.

Scott Kellar, the Region’s Homeland Security Coordinator, noted that the NCR’s highly collaborative and mutually supportive public-private-nonprofit approach to building situational awareness was key to their success. “It is critical in any emergency response to have accurate and complete information that enables critical decision-making at all levels. Our platform, powered by Esri and executed by Critigen and many other partners, provides a key tool that enables emergency response leaders to make the key decisions that will save lives and provide comfort”.

The following are the COVID-19 resources currently being hosted on NCR’s ArcGIS Online organization.

NCR COVID-19 Core Info Needs Story Map

Colorado NCR Story Map Image

NCR COVID-19 Core Info Needs Story Map contains case counts, orders, and advisories, EOC activation, social distancing mobility data, health and medical data, alternate care facilities, first responder status, school status, etc. The story map was developed and is supported by the NAPSG Foundation.

NCR COVID-19 Colorado Statewide Dashboard

NCR COVID-19 Colorado Statewide Dashboard Image

NCR COVID-19 Colorado Statewide Dashboard contains COVID-19 confirmed cases, total deaths, current mortality rate, current hospitalizations, cumulative hospitalizations, ICU bed availability and ICU bed capacity. Data can be filtered at the jurisdictional level by NCR County. The dashboard was developed by Douglas County.

NCR COVID-19 School Meals Sites

NCR COVID-19 School Meals Sites Dashboard Image

NCR COVID-19 School Meals Sites contains information about meal distribution including site address, mealtimes, distribution types, and meal types (e.g., breakfast, lunch). Data can be filtered jurisdictionally by NCR County. The dashboard was developed by Boulder County.

Next Steps

The COVID-19 outbreak is revealing gaps and ready accessibility to information that is critical during any emergency response—epidemic, natural disaster, terrorism or otherwise. The outbreak has emphasized the need for authoritative streams of reliable information. The NCR is actively working on developing policies, procedures, and tools to improve the acquisition and distribution of single sources of trusted data and information to the region.

Near-term goals:

  1. Improving the distribution of health-related information for admissions, discharges, ICU beds, PPE, ventilators, and rehabilitation and long-term care facilities. Currently this information is collected and distributed in a mostly manual process which impacts the information’s timeliness, accuracy, and currency. Challenges to these processes exist at both the input level (hospitals, healthcare facilities) as well as at the operational user levels (emergency operations centers, policy groups). The operational need is for near real time availability of this type of information and the current tools and processes do not support that requirement. The NCR is in the process of teaming up with the non-profit CORHIO, the Region’s health information exchange (HIE), to design and field a health information feed that will fill the requirement for near real time, decision making health resource information for the region.
  2. Supporting the real-time update and public sharing of testing sites. Currently, there are numerous efforts to collect and share the location of testing sites, including Apple Maps crowdsourcing initiative, that can substantiate, complement, or conflict with existing lists being created and maintained by local agencies. The NCR is exploring the use of Esri’s Testing Site Locator applications to manage testing sites for the region. Douglas County has released a locator prototype.
  3. As warmer weather arrives to the Front Range, the NCR will ready itself for a season of potential wildfires and inevitable severe weather, including tornadoes, bomb cyclones, and flooding. The NCR will continue its efforts to deliver a regional situational awareness tool and expand its capabilities to respond to not only these common natural disaster events but the coronavirus too.

Critigen

Since 2010, Critigen has provided GIS consulting services to the NCR, from assisting with the initial implementation of the NCR regional geodatabase and portal to current efforts in supporting the development of COVID-19 related applications. Tasks performed over the past decade include:

  • Creation of the NCR regional geodatabase with Extract, Transform and Load (ETL) capabilities
  • Street centerline edge matching support
  • Development of the NCR GIS upload and download portal
  • End user and administrator training
  • Design of the situational awareness tool (including server infrastructure)
  • Design of operational layer implementation (e.g., shelter layer)
  • Situational awareness tool development support
  • COVID-19 application development support
  • System software installation and configuration
  • System maintenance and sustainment (including migration of the system to a cloud-hosted environment)