By the time most of the world became aware of deadly wildfires ripping through Lahaina and Kula on Maui, a small team of Civil Air Patrol and Federal Emergency Management Agency members had already remotely identified 800 damaged or destroyed structures. 

Using publicly available imagery and artificial intelligence technology, within days the remote team assessed some 2,000 homes and businesses and deemed more than 1,800 destroyed or damaged.­­ They drew on satellite imagery and airborne imagery from both Vexcel Imaging and CAP’s Hawaii Wing, 

Working with FEMA, the CAP team created a map of the damaged structures— which President Joe Biden used in issuing a federal disaster declaration to expedite financial aid to fire victims. A White House social media post on federal support to Hawaii showed the president viewing the assessment map.

“In his hand he was holding a map — and it was our team’s map,” said Maj. Scott Kaplan, volunteer manager for the CAP Geospatial Program. 

“We never thought the products our team helped FEMA create would be given to the president.” 

That small but rewarding recognition was among many highlights for the relatively young CAP program. Last year it assessed more than 63,000 structures in 18 states and territories, amounting to more than 1,000 volunteer hours that helped speed relief to millions of Americans in need. 

Not bad for a program only 5 years old. 

“I’ve joked all along that as a program, we’re still crawling or walking. But really, we’ve been running with scissors since we started,” said Kaplan, who recently served as deputy commander for Virginia Wing Group 3. 

GIS quotes aHe’s employed as the senior adviser to the chairman of the Civil Applications Committee at the U.S. Geological Survey, where he’s on a joint assignment from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Kaplan was tapped to create what was then called the CAP Geographic Information Systems (GIS) team now known as the CAP Geospatial Program to reflect a broader mission beyond the use of GIS.

Today, in addition to airborne and satellite imagery, the team heavily leverages open-source videos and photos and even hand-held imagery collected through phone applications.

A GIS tool uses all this remote sensing data to visualize the material  and create geospatial information. The program continues to expand its ranks with CAP members, including cadets who help gather and analyze images and other information far from a disaster zone.

Just recently, the program has been at work providing geospatial assessments for two other events of national importance – destructive wildfires in the Texas panhandle and a tornado outbreak in the Midwest.

During its formation, leadership established three main goals for the program: 

  • Help augment federal, state, and county emergency response teams in times of natural disasters with GIS-trained personnel. 
  • Provide visualized data to help CAP internally understand capabilities from National Headquarters down to the squadron level. 
  • Offer a potential career path for cadets in the geospatial industry. 

Soon after the program was made official on July 31, 2019, Category 5 Hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas and eastern U.S. 

Partnering with GIS technology provider Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc., better known as Esri, to use its ArcGIS mapping and spatial analytics tools, the team got to work building a geospatial story map and dashboard to assist CAP incident commanders. 

Then in January 2020, a powerful earthquake struck Puerto Rico. The team equipped Puerto Rico Wing adult members and cadets with geospatial handheld applications developed by CAP and the National Alliance for Public Safety GIS. 

Ground teams gathered images provided to the tool, which provided a comprehensive picture of the earthquake’s impact. 

The images taken were the first vetted images provided to FEMA, accelerating a presidential disaster declaration. 

Soon after that, COVID-19 hit, and the Geospatial Team was tasked with helping provide CAP the big picture of infection rates for members across the country. 

Using smartphone-based applications with a survey completed by squadron commanders showed how many members tested positive for the virus in the previous week. Leveraging geospatial technology, the team was able to show CAP’s national leadership exactly how COVID was affecting membership. 

Over just the first few disasters, “we helped augment FEMA during times of a natural disaster with CAP Geospatial personnel; we helped CAP internally; and we got kids involved because we allowed them to use the same tools we use,” Kaplan said. 

“In doing so, we had met all three goals of the program,” he said. 

One of the Geospatial Program’s biggest draws is that anyone can participate, regardless of location, age, gender, or disability. 

“We allow everyone to be involved, and that’s been a big piece of our program since its inception,” Kaplan stressed, adding that even visually impaired volunteers are welcomed. “Even if someone is blind, we’ll find a way for them to help.” 

Maj. P. Adrian Carnes, the National Emergency Services Academy-Southeast chief of staff and South Carolina Wing director of logistics, has participated in nine Geospatial Disaster Assessment Teams – including tornado and hurricane coverage that earned team members some of the highest honors awarded by state governors and CAP national leadership. 

Carnesquote“You’re helping other people in their darkest moment,” Carnes said, “people who’ve lost everything, and we try to help them pull their lives back together again.” 

Carnes’ daughter Casey, now a hospice nurse, was a top-ranked cadet as a youth, and he believes one of the Geospatial Program’s best aspects is the opportunity for young cadets to work alongside adult members. 

“These kids can do the same job I can do because they are trained just as I am,” he said. “To have them develop a sense of pride in themselves, and then carry that forward, is among the things I like most about CAP.” 

First Lt. John Roberts, homeland security officer for the Massachusetts Wing, joined the Geospatial Program in May 2022 as another way to contribute. 

“You can do it from your chair or anywhere, at any time of the day,” Roberts said. “More importantly, it gives members the ability to contribute in real missions.” 

He recalls helping with damage assessments in Florida after Hurricane Ian damaged 24,546 structures in September 2022. Roberts had family in Florida displaced by the storm, and because of the work he and others did, his sister received financial assistance from FEMA in a matter of days. 

“Anything we can do to improve that speed and get those resources and money allocated is our real mission,” he said. 

In addition to expediting FEMA payments, the Geospatial Program’s damage assessments can help combat insurance fraud by matching claims against their evaluations — something even artificial intelligence solutions still struggle to accurately detect. For instance, a solar panel on a perfectly intact house could be misread as destruction because the machine sees what looks like a massive black hole in the image. 

GIS quotes bRecently Roberts and Carnes were among team members volunteering to help the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratories improve AI models to prevent such misinterpretations. Volunteers were divided into three groups to label thousands of CAP-generated images and later confirm or reject results from the AI program. 

“The value CAP is providing MIT Lincoln Labs is massive,” Roberts said. 

For the Geospatial Program Damage Assessment Team, AI is now used to augment efforts – but it won’t replace them. “We’re still better than the AI models,” Kaplan said. 

“We have some of the best damage assessment imagery experts for natural disasters in the country,” he added. And he has a spate of awards to back it up, including the Making a Difference Award given at Esri’s federal government conference and the CAP JanEX Prize for Innovation. 

“I love what I do,” Kaplan said. “At the end of the day, we’re helping people, and that’s what matters.” 
Anne Saita 
Contributing writer