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A deadly series of California wildfires set thousands of firefighters and first responders into action in late 2018.

Color image showing buildings damaged or destroyed by the Camp Fire in California
A map showing buildings damaged or destroyed California's Camp Fire as of Nov. 18, 2018

As those first responders chopped through charred buildings looking for the lost and gone, a professor in Wyoming who’d been quietly orchestrating the collection and release of fire-related satellite imagery got word that a French team had mapped the damaged and destroyed buildings of Paradise, CA.

Less than two weeks had passed since the Camp Fire tore through Paradise and reduced the town to a smoldering rubble.

“At that time, they were still looking for people,” said Ramesh Sivanpillai, a remote sensing scientist with the University of Wyoming in Laramie. “They didn’t know what had happened to them. And (responders) were not sure if these places were safe to go into.”

As Project Manager for the International Charter Space and Major Disasters’ California fire activation, Sivanpillai knew what to do.

He alerted his liaison with the National Guard, who told him the maps would be useful. The damage assessments from the French rapid-mapping team were soon available through USGS Hazards Data Distribution System (HDDS), along with maps of the fire’s path created by Germany’s Center for Satellite Based Crisis Information and hundreds of other satellite and aerial images that captured the extent of the Camp and Woolsey fires.

The story illustrates the importance of the Project Manager (PM) to the Charter’s mission. All PMs are volunteers, remote sensing experts from a variety of backgrounds who serve as the human hub that connects those who respond to hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, or wildfires around the world to the resources and expertise of a vast network of international space agencies.

That’s especially valuable in places like Mozambique or Zimbabwe, where national agencies lack the data resources to track damage from disasters like Cyclone Idai.

“In the U.S., there’s such a wealth of data available that oftentimes the Charter is not necessary,” said Mike Budde, an EROS geographer and member of the Charter’s Executive Secretariat. “The Charter is really intended to support places that weren’t able to collect their own data.”

EROS Training Offers Updates Ahead of Hurricane Season

Keeping volunteers trained, connected, and aware of software and procedural changes needed to manage an activation requires occasional refresher training sessions like the one Sivanpillai and nine others attended in mid-June at the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center near Sioux Falls, SD. Similar trainings for international PMs will be held in Europe later this year.

Color photo of International Charter for Space and Major Disasters project managers at USGS EROS Center
Project Managers (PMs) for the International Charter Space and Major Disasters pose for a photo at the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center during a June 2019 refresher training.  PMs manage the collection and release of satellite and other remotely-sensed images following a Charter activation.

Budde said PMs are vital to the Charter mission. He can activate the Charter and define the disaster area, and on-call operators can initiate data requests from Charter members. But PMs are at the heart of any response.

They alter data requests as conditions change and disasters move, reach out to experts who can turn that data into actionable information and watch for those who’ve done so independently, and move that information into HDDS for use by those who need it on the ground.

“At the center of this whole operational loop is the Project Manager,” Budde said. “They’re really the person that orchestrates the whole activation.”

Training is necessary to keep PMs up-to-date, in part because PMs might go years without an activation. Some are trained and never activated. Mid-June was an ideal time for the recent EROS training for several reasons, Budde said, not the least of which being the impending start of hurricane season.

“I keep watching (for hurricanes) and we haven’t seen anything yet, but we will certainly need your assistance in the near future,” Budde told the PMs.

Charter Volunteers Serve Multiple Roles

Hope Morgan understands the Charter’s value on multiple levels. She’s a trained PM who managed the activation for Hurricane Matthew in 2016, but her day job is IT manager for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety’s Emergency Management division.

“What we’re always looking for is more immediate information to determine how to respond, who needs to be helped, where the impacts are,” said Morgan, who attended the EROS refresher training. “Knowing you can get it from multiple sources with multiple technologies actually lets you make better decisions.”

Morgan was pleased to learn about the Charter’s effort to expand access to “Value-Added (VA)” specialists. VA specialists are the agencies, universities and other entities that do what the French rapid-mapping team did last year in California – take data and turn it into actionable information.

Morgan returned to Raleigh with a list of people to reach out to as potential VA providers. The list of value-adders could include experts within her own agency, her agency’s partners in other states - or even Morgan herself.

“I’m going to get a flood impact area from some of these remote sensing providers, but I have all the buildings in the state,” she said. “I then can compare the flood zone to the buildings and find out who’s in and out of water. That’s when it gets down to where it impacts me as an emergency manager. I can say ‘these people are under water. You need to go get them out.’”

Color image showing the path of the Camp Fire in California
A map of California's Camp Fire showing the active fire fronts, burnt areas and a damage assessment, as of Nov. 18, 2018

Knowing who can do what, where they are, and how they might help in a given situation is as important a training takeaway as any procedural update, Sivanpillai said. His four training sessions put him face-to-face with people he might work with around the world during an activation.

In high-stress disaster situations where multiple agencies need multiple data types to respond to rapidly-changing conditions, rapport with other volunteers makes a big difference.

“Finally, everything boils down to those personal connections,” Sivanpillai said. “To me, it doesn’t matter what grade the technology is. Those types of connections are really important, because we’re all working in different time zones and spread out around the world. Someone’s having breakfast in America. Another person is having lunch in Europe. Someone else is going to bed in Asia. Having a face to the name really makes it easier when I need to make a new request.”

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