The consequences of the forest fires that erupted in central and southern Chile last January were impossible to foresee, but thanks to the Integrated Emergency Information System (SIIE, per its Spanish acronym) the authorities responsible for managing the emergency were able to mitigate the damage. The system was developed by the Chilean Army’s Military Geographic Institute (IGM, per its Spanish acronym) in collaboration with the Interior Ministry’s National Office of Emergency (ONEMI, per its Spanish acronym). It is coordinated by the Ministry of Defense.
“[The SIIE] uses up-to-date information to visualize, analyze and identify at-risk areas during an emergency in order to protect the population and support decision-making,” said Lieutenant Colonel Cristian Carrasco, head of the Research and Development Department of the IGM.
The system is a geo-referenced multisector land information platform covering 4,300 kilometers of Chilean territory. It allows for virtual identification and analysis of vulnerabilities of a specific area of a country affected by a natural disaster such as a volcanic eruption, earthquake, tsunami, flood or forest fire. This analysis helps determine the at-risk population, evacuation routes, essential infrastructure, and passable roads, among other critical emergency information.
“The tool was devised so that the authorities could address the three stages of an emergency: preparation, response, and recovery. It is not a solution in and of itself, but it provides support for planning,” Lt. Col. Carrasco said.
The system consists of a base digital map of the country, on top of which a series of physical maps is displayed, along with maps of roads, cities, services, images, etc., created from information provided by the Air Force Air Photographic Surveying Service, the Navy Hydrographic and Oceanographic Service, the IGM, the Meteorological Service, the National Seismological Center, the National Geology and Mining Service (SERNAGEOMIN, per its Spanish acronym), the National Statistics Institute, as well as the ministries of Energy, Public Works, and Health, and the ONEMI.
The IGM began working on the SIIE platform in 2010, after the February 27th earthquake, when it determined that there was no unified national geographic information system that could allow ONEMI to make decisions immediately after a natural disaster. “At that time, the IGM was the only institution that could move forward with this challenge,” said Leonardo Espinoza, who is in charge of the Land Information Management Unit of ONEMI. “It had geo-referencing technology, which was the basis for the initial work, and the knowledge to gather all the information and put it together in one single system,” he stated.
The information contained in the SIIE is detailed enough to allow users to identify street names anywhere in the country; to estimate the population in an area and categorize it by sex and age range; and to determine the number of schools and hospitals as well as the energy infrastructure in a given area.
The SIIE was designed in stages. First, they put together geographic maps of the country’s northern regions, and later of all Chile’s 15 regions. The system has been in use since the end of 2016. The initial investment was approximately $700,000, and it has yearly operating costs of $140,000.
The SIIE is at the disposal of ONEMI, which manages emergencies throughout the country. It is accessible via internet to all relevant technical organizations during a natural disaster. The Chilean Army headquarters, which has taken an active role in supporting the population during disasters in recent years, also has access to the SIIE.
The digital system has the capacity to make projections or display different virtual maps, in accordance with the threat. For example, during the December 25, 2016 earthquake in the city of Chiloé, at the southern tip of the country, the SIIE allowed ONEMI authorities to analyze the area and its possible risks. They established evacuation zones in a short amount of time and set up links with regional authorities to determine the extent of damage to infrastructure.
During the forest fires that occurred in January, “the system allowed the authorities and organizations working with it to analyze the phenomenon, how it might evolve, and to establish evacuation plans and protective measures,” Espinoza explained.
The SIIE was also designed for disaster prevention. In a volcanic threat, for example, the system has information from 90 active volcanoes categorized according to threat: high, moderate, and low. SERNAGEOMIN constantly monitors and uploads images to the system. It can make projections regarding the likelihood of an eruption, determine areas of possible lava flow, the severity and breadth of damage, as well as make time-lapse projections.
If an air evacuation is necessary during a volcanic eruption, the system “displays the aeronautical map showing available routes and airports or airfields adequate to such purposes,” Espinoza said.
The SIIE operates online with two independent servers, one owned by the IGM, the other by the ONEMI, so every database update or new subject is incorporated into the platform, which is then backed up on both servers. The redundancy in the system also ensures greater operational security in an emergency. If one connection were to fail, the second server maintains access to the platform.
“The ONEMI has kept close ties with the IGM; they work jointly to maintain the system’s operability in emergency situations,” Lt. Col. Carrasco said.
“We now give very high-value information to the regional and central authorities,” Espinoza concluded.