Safe and sound: Fire Chief Werner leads $1 million data sharing project

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The City of Charlottesville recently received a $1 million grant from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management to establish a regional and statewide information-sharing plan. According to Charlottesville Fire Chief Charles Werner, the region’s unfavorable experiences with wet microbursts and snowstorms in recent years made it clear that current protocol simply wasn’t cutting it.

Werner, who has crisis management experience, also has remarkable enthusiasm for new technologies and instant information. (Last week, he sent media three messages within 45 minutes concerning a school bus accident on McIntire Road; two included photos.) Werner will lead the implementation of a joint system for public safety organizations. He hopes to facilitate “better information sharing across all agencies,” he told C-VILLE.

Charlottesville Fire Chief Charles Werner—a prolific photographer and texter when it comes to alerting locals to emergencies—will oversee a $1 million grant to create an integrated emergency management system. Photo by Kelly Kollar.

Federal agencies will also be able to see regional events in real-time, enabling them to quickly allocate resources should a catastrophic event occur.Part of the project will focus on preemptive safety measures. Updated road sensors could electronically inform the Department of Transportation when temperatures approach the freezing point so road crews are prepared to prevent icy roadways. Flood river gauges would provide the same assistance in evacuating residents who may be in danger.

“Being proactive rather than reactive is one of the main benefits of this project,” said Werner.

Shared data will be used to generate an interactive area map, which will include current weather and road conditions, evacuation zones, and events around Charlottesville. In the event of poor weather or a car accident, such technology would help reroute traffic patterns.

Area residents will be vital to enhancing situational awareness.
Those with smart phones may be able to contribute to the interactive map by providing details and photographs of dangerous or damaged areas. Responders could assess the scope of damage in affected areas and arrive prepared.

Sharing information in real-time leads to “a much better sense of what’s happening in our community at any given moment,” Werner said. He added that the current system of generating a list of reported incidents, such as fallen trees, is not the most effective means of presenting safety concerns.

Werner has witnessed success in situations where technology provides a visual reference from statistics and reports. For example, officials in Louisa County noticed a fault line after rendering earthquake damage statistics onto a map.

“If you don’t have the capability of seeing things visually, you’re probably not making the best decision that you can make,” Werner said. He expects that this project will allow safety agencies to perform their duties at a much higher level.

The project will create a model for information sharing that may be replicated in other parts of Virginia and potentially throughout the nation. According to the timeline, the project is set to finish by June 2012.

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