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A map of southeastern Florida.
Information icon An excerpt of the Palm Beach County, FL map. Map by Roy Hewitt, USFWS.

Fish and Wildlife Service responders bringing technology to aid Hurricane Irma response, bolster safety

With Hurricane Irma heading toward the mainland United States, Josh O’Connor has a tool that can help search and rescue efforts after the storm has passed. It fits in one hand and is no larger than a cell phone.

In fact, it is a cell phone – one with some modifications that have already helped search parties plying the murky waters left by Hurricane Harvey.

A fire specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), O’Connor realized searchers faced daunting conditions as they looked for people after Harvey had passed. O’Connor also knew he had something that could help – technology he had used in fighting wildland blazes. He only needed to add another item to make it work on water, too.

O’Connor combined publicly available geo-referenced PDF maps with the Avenza mobile application for smart phones and tablets. The result: a tool that tells searchers where they are on a flooded street, an inundated parking lot or submerged park. It can tell responders what utility infrastructure is underneath them, and where other important infrastructure might be located that responders cannot see.

O’Connor developed the tool in time to help searchers in three Texas cities and four counties that lay in Harvey’s devastating path.

Service employees led by O’Connor and several of its best technology and mapping experts were able to produce maps for Port Arthur, Beaumont, and Orange, Texas, as well as Hardin, Jefferson, Liberty and Orange Counties. They wasted no time.

“We knew it could take 36 hours or more to get large printed maps to rescue teams, and this technology would help them respond more quickly in real time,” O’Connor said in a recent interview. “With this tool we can produce maps in minutes and make them available to rescue teams in flooded areas to show them exactly where they are in terms of submerged roads, power lines, and more.

“Just being able to use this technology to support responders and give them the advantage of speed and safety that comes with information like this is important to us and the people that need them quickly.”

The Service stepped in when Harvey’s victims needed help most, said Hardin County Judge Wayne McDaniel.

“This technology is an invaluable tool for everyone who is responding to our needs,” he said. “Not just our emergency services personnel, but also our public utility departments and others.

“I can’t say enough about how much we appreciate everything that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has done and continues to do with its people, technology and equipment to help us save lives.”

Service employees will always pitch in when they can, said Greg Sheehan, the Service’s Principal Deputy Director.

“I am extremely proud of the way our employees are aiding this vital response effort to help the people of southeast Texas,” Sheehan said recently as searchers used the maps the Service had created. “The technology Josh O’Connor and our team are using to help speed response times and enhance safety for our responders is incredibly valuable.”

Now, that technology is waiting for whoever is in Irma’s path.

Download the maps


Jeff Fleming, External Affairs, (404) 679-7287

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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